SDNY Taps Nonprofit To Run Clinic For Pro Se Litigants

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The City Bar Justice Center announced Tuesday that it has been enlisted to take over the Southern District of New York's 8-year-old legal assistance clinic's services for self-represented litigants, as many low-income Americans face the civil legal system alone.

The district's Board of Judges chose the center to take charge of the clinic in October, about a decade after the center began operating a similar project in the Eastern District of New York. At the time, that pro se clinic was among the first of its kind for a federal district court system in the United States.

"The City Bar Justice Center saw this as an opportunity to expand on our success operating the pro se assistance program we've operated in the Eastern District for 10 years, and also as an opportunity to further our strong track record recruiting, training, and supervising pro bono volunteers," center Executive Director Kurt Denk told Law360 by email Monday.   

Even now, Denk estimated there aren't more than 20 such programs in the U.S., and said some of them belong to districts with multiple programs.

"I think the fact that you see an increase in the number of these clinics nationwide in other district courts reflects an awareness that this really is an access to justice issue," he told Law360 in an interview.

A 2022 Legal Services Corporation report found that low-income Americans received no legal help or not enough legal help with 92% of the civil legal problems that "impacted them substantially."

In addition to helping pro se litigants navigate the system, Denk said, pro se clinics can help courts operate more efficiently by helping to ensure pro se litigants are more informed about the process ahead of them.

U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, chief judge for the southern district of New York, said the district looks forward to the City Bar Justice Center "joining the Court in service to pro se litigants."

"We believe projects like the S.D.N.Y. Pro Se Clinic have an important role to play, by helping otherwise unrepresented litigants understand their rights and defenses, and frame and present their arguments, in supporting the court's fulfillment of its obligation to administer justice fairly and impartially," Judge Swain said in a statement.

The City Bar Justice Center anticipates engaging law students and attorney volunteers through its partnerships with corporate legal departments, solo practitioners and law firms.

"We also join the City Bar Justice Center in encouraging attorneys who practice in the Southern District to provide robust pro bono support to S.D.N.Y. litigants who cannot afford counsel, including by volunteering with the S.D.N.Y. Pro Se Clinic," Judge Swain said.

There are several ways for law firms to help. The center may opt to refer some matters to them for brief counsel and advice if it thinks the client would benefit from pro bono assistance. Firm lawyers can also represent clients for the purposes of a specific litigation task, such as defending a deposition or simply educating pro se litigants about a specific phase of their litigation.

"On occasion, firms have even taken on sort of full scope representation for the sort of remainder of a pro se litigant's case," Denk said.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP and Labaton Keller Sucharow LLP are just some of the firms that have helped the center on efforts like these. Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP also worked with the center to set up a discovery clinic.

Denk said the work can help more junior attorneys develop big-picture litigation skills, as like client communication and case strategizing, that could otherwise take years to hone through work handing small aspects of massive cases. Many retired or semiretired attorneys like to help with these efforts, as well.

"There's a dimension of this that facilitates the flourishing of the profession separate and apart from it helping litigants and helping courts," Denk said.

--Editing by Amy French.

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