Legal Services in the Time of COVID-19

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By: Gregory Lebens-Higgins

As anyone who works in the legal industry or has needed a lawyer knows, legal actions can be expensive. Furthermore, the legal system is difficult to navigate and requires a substantial time investment.

These difficulties stand as a barrier to many families and individuals seeking assistance with public benefits, family, or housing issues. Neighborhood Legal Services (“NLS”) provides free legal services to facilitate equal access to justice.

The legal services model dates back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty and the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1964, which helped establish the Legal Service Corporation, and fund legal services programthroughout the United States. NLS formed in 1965 in the wake of this effort.

While NLS initially had four neighborhood offices located in Buffalo and Lackawanna neighborhoods with the largest concentration of low-income residents, it now has offices in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Batavia, assisting individuals across a broad swath of Western New York.

I became aware of NLS through training for the Justice Bus program which seeks to bring legal services to underserved areas, while giving law students the opportunity to gain experience and make a positive impact in surrounding communities. Although plans with the Justice Bus were put on hold as a result of COVID-19, I am thrilled to spend my 1L summer as a law clerk at the Batavia NLS office.

After the first couple of weeks working remotely, the Batavia office was able to reopen thanks to the low number of COVID-19 cases in Genesee County. This has granted the capability for somewhat normalized, though socially distanced, interactions with NLS staff attorneys. They have been a valuable resource for legal questions and career advice. Also, I discovered a legal career leaves room for a sense of humor!

In limited situations clients have been allowed to visit the office. On each occasion they have been extremely thankful for our work, especially following the delay forced by court closures.

My duties have involved researching fascinating legal issues, including qualifications for emotional support animals under the Fair Housing Act, considering unreported income in child support calculations, and preventing marital property from falling into foreclosure during divorce proceedings.

One important lesson I have learned is not to ask a question I can find the answer to elsewhere. Although my coworkers are happy to help and provide guidance, they have often redirected questions as a learning opportunity. This has increased my exposure to interpreting statutes, and strengthened my research skills and self-reliance.

Following the end of a moratorium in place due to COVID-19, the coming weeks threaten to unleash a flood of evictions. Although tenants who would be evicted for non-payment remain protected until at least mid-August, NLS is preparing to meet this substantial need. In some instances, the first steps in evictions have been taken for reasons other than lack of payment. In others, landlords are attempting to take creative measures to evict tenants.

While I am thankful for this summer at NLS, I admit a pang of loss at the inability to watch court proceedings or participate under a student practice order. However, after two months of virtual classes, and a likely return to virtual classes in the fall, it has been a welcome oasis to come into the office, discuss legal issues face-to-face (in masks) with coworkers, and complete tasks with a real-world impact.

Lastly, spending a summer as an unpaid intern can be a daunting task. Despite a strong desire to help those most in need, the lucrative pay for summer associates in private practice is tempting. Being selected as a recipient for the Terry M. Richman Summer Fellowship Award has allowed me to fearlessly commit to a summer of public service without straining my budget.

Lebens-Higgins - picture (1 of 1)

Name:  Gregory Lebens-Higgins

Name of Fellowship:  Terry M. Richman Summer Fellowship Award

Placement:  Neighborhood Legal Services, Inc.

Location:  Buffalo, New York

One important lesson I learned from this fellowship is:  “One important lesson I learned is not to ask a question I can find the answer to elsewhere. Although my coworkers are happy to help and provide guidance, they have often redirected questions as a learning opportunity. This has increased my exposure to interpreting statutes, and strengthened my research skills and self-reliance.”

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