Nonprofits get financial lift from Westchester Bar

The Westchester County Bar Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Bar Association, is hosting its first cocktail reception and silent auction to raise money for its fellowship program, which helps young lawyers work for nonprofit organization that offer legal services to the poor.

The benefit will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 9 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Coveleigh Club 459 Stuyvesant Ave. on the Sound in Rye. Tickets are $75 per person.

Since 2007, young lawyers interested in public service have given free legal representation to hundreds of Westchester residents who would not otherwise have received it by becoming fellows of the Bar. The first fellow, Karen Tenenbaum, was a graduate of Harvard Law School. She was placed at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) and was offered a full-time position there when she completed her fellowship two years later.

When asked to describe her experience at LSHV, Karen said, “The WCBF fellowship launched my career in poverty law and has given me a lifelong commitment to civil legal services work. Not only did it create a job for me that otherwise would not have been available, the fellowship provided me access to experienced mentors and advisors within the WCBA to whom I still turn to for knowledge, advice and support. … This fellowship has enabled me to assist hundreds of clients … Your continued support of the fellow program is crucial to its survival.”

Virginia Foulkrod was the Foundation’s second fellow. A graduate of Pace, she began her work in September 2009 at My Sisters’ Place, a White Plains-based organization that provided victims of domestic violence with access to legal protections for their survival and safety.

“I take great personal pride in the people I represent,” Virginia says. “This fellowship allows me to help those in need and, perhaps more importantly, to develop the skills I’ll need to be a public service attorney for the rest of my career.”

The WCBF’s newest fellow is Darren Guild, a 2011 Pace graduate who was selected this past May. A special education teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn prior to attending law school, the Foundation matched Darren with Student Advocacy of Elmsford, a non-profit helping parents in Westchester and Putnam counties whose children are having behavioral, emotional, physical or family-related problems in school.

At the event, the Foundation will recognize P. Daniel Hollis III, past president of the WCBF and the driving force behind the public interest fellowship program.

Those who cannot attend can be a sponsor or donate an item for the silent auction.

For more information, contact WCBA Executive Director Bill Egan at 914-761-3707 ext. 16; Donna Drumm, director of communications, at ext. 19; or send an email to sponsor@wcbany.org.

Pace law student to become child advocate

Pace Law School sent me an interesting story about a former New York City schoolteacher (left) who went to law school to help children and their families navigate the legal system. He will be doing just that, thanks to a flelowship that pays for him to work at an Elmsford-based child services agency:

Darren Guild, Pace Law School Class of 2011, was recently awarded the Westchester County Bar Foundation’s Public Interest Law Fellowship. The Fellowship provides two years of funding for Darren to serve as an attorney at Student Advocacy, a Westchester non-profit organization that assists parents in obtaining the most comprehensive response to a child’s educational needs allowable under the law. Darren was selected for the Fellowship from a pool of highly-qualified applicants at numerous competitive area law schools, including NYU and Cornell.

Before law school, Darren, who lives in the Bronx, was a special education teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There, he encountered many cases of inadequate treatment and support of students on the part of the New York City public school system, including mislabeling, mistreatment and misplacement. This fueled his desire to educate families about their legal rights. Darren decided to attend law school to learn how to advocate effectively for parents and children and help change ingrained practices.

According to Darren, knowledge of the law empowers him to go beyond helping individual students, and work towards solving problems on a systemic level.

“Teachers are probably the most important people in a student’s education, but as a former teacher myself, I know there are lots of times when teachers’ hands are tied,” he said. “My goal as a lawyer is to help parents understand their children’s educational rights, and help them solve problems in an effective, systemic way.”

Darren’s job at Student Advocacy, an Elmsford-based organization that serves families in Westchester and Putnam Counties, will be to advocate for families of students with special needs, including representing them at mandated yearly meetings with their children’s teachers and school administrators. He explained the importance of having an advocate: “Sometimes parents feel like it’s them against the school district. So having an advocate can really help them not only understand the types of services that are available, but also bolster their confidence about speaking up to advocate for programs and services they see as appropriate for their children.”

At Student Advocacy, Darren will also advocate for students who have received suspensions of more than five days long. Under New York law, students given extended suspensions are guaranteed the right to a hearing, where they may challenge the allegations against them and/or the threatened punishment. “Many times, regardless of the student’s underlying guilt, the school will call for an extended suspension. It can be very harmful to the student’s future if he or she is out of school for a week, a month or a year,” Darren said. “By representing students at these suspension hearings, I will ensure that the charges against them are warranted, and that the punishment is proportionate.”

Long term, Darren intends to work in education law, particularly to attain equal educational opportunities for low-income and minority students, who are traditionally underserved.

Bar Associations demand action in overcrowded family courts

In July, I wrote a story about overcrowding and other problems in the family courts in Yonkers and New Rochelle. A state report criticized the buildings as “among the worst in the state” for family courts and cited insufficient space, lack of parking, security problems and accessibility violations among the problems.

County and court officials at the time said they would address the situation. Four months later, nothing has changed.

Today, the Westchester County Bar Association issued a joint statement with other legal groups calling for action to fix the “severe disrepair”‘ in those facilities. Here is the full, unedited statement:

“Local Bar Associations representing the majority of practicing lawyers in Westchester have come together to call attention to the deplorable conditions that exist in the Family Court facilities in Yonkers (and New Rochelle) and call for appropriate action to correct these conditions.”

“Donald Sandford, President of the WCBA, describes the current state of the facility:  ‘There is insufficient space for the most basic needs, conference space for litigants and their attorneys, storage space for court files, work space for court personnel, etc.  These problems have now been exacerbated by the fact that persons having business before the court are denied access because the facilities are so grossly overcrowded.'”

“The Law Guardian Association, the New Rochelle Bar Association,  the Yonkers Bar Association, the Westchester Black Bar Association,  the Westchester Women’s Bar Association join with the Westchester County Bar Association in calling for action. As leaders of the legal community, the combined organizations believe that it is their duty to speak out against the disgraceful conditions in order to assist those seeking access to justice. They agree that activism on the part of local bar associations is the best way to call attentions to the problem and bring about a solution to the conditions in the satellite family courts.”

It’s Pro Bono Day!

Today is Pro Bono Day in Westchester County, a day where lawyers are encouraged to waive their fees and fight for impoverished clients. In recognition of the American Bar Association’s first ever National Pro Bono Week, Pace University Law School in White Plains is hosting a day’s worth of programs and activities for attorneys who want to take on the challenge of pro bono work.

Later tonight, state Supreme Court Justice Francis A. Nicolai will be among those to receive the “Partners In Justice Award” during a reception starting at 5:30 p.m. Nicolai, the presiding judge of the Appellate Term for the Ninth and Tenth Judicial Districts, will be honored alongside attorneys Barbara Lerman, Julie Cvek, Robert Byrne, Dawn Arnold and the law firm of McCarthy Fingar LLP in the Omni Room of the Judicial Institute.

Sponsors include Pace Law School Center for Career Development, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, The Westchester County Pro Bono Committee, Westchester County Bar Association, Westchester Women’s Bar Association, Westchester Black Bar Association, Brandeis Bar Association, Columbian Bar Association, and bar associations in White Plains, New Rochelle and Yonkers.