A Summer with The Volunteer Lawyers Project

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By: Erica Dombrowski

The Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers (ECBA) Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) provides various legal services to people who require financial assistance. The VLP offers free legal advice to those who are eligible in family law matters, immigration, taxes, and much more. Occasionally VLP also provides full representation to certain parties who are eligible. Each and every member of VLP is unique in that they come from a variety of backgrounds, aiding their ability to provide sound legal advice to clients. Vanessa Guite, Esq., a former prosecutor and longtime advocate for domestic violence victims,  is now able to offer hands on trauma-informed care on a daily basis to clients. Her partner in crime, Lori Genovese, Esq., provides a background of many years in family court and custody cases for a variety of families. As a former professor, Lori is able to dispense valuable teaching opportunities to myself and my fellow interns. Together, these attorneys run VLP’s Family Court Help Desk and train the future generation of advocates in law.

Prior to beginning at VLP as a summer fellow from the University at Buffalo School of Law, I had no experience in family law or a similar field of law. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous entering an experience requiring fast learning to provide solid support to those in need. Personally, my grades do not always reflect my abilities as an advocate for others. The discouragement I felt throughout the school year has been replaced by a sense of belonging and pride in myself and my fellow interns’ abilities. Each day we receive a large amount of calls to the family help desk. The interns are tasked with determining legal issues and financial eligibility, collecting the legally relevant information, and identifying the correct avenue of relief if it is outside the scope of our desk. A significant portion of the family law cases involve domestic violence. Interns are responsible for identifying red flags in the client’s stories in order to provide further services based on their need. Although many may feel frustrated by an abundance of calls to their agency, the VLP staff holds the attitude that each new client is someone who took the step to seek help. Therefore, each call is an opportunity to better someone’s life or situation.

The attorneys at  VLP demonstrate that it is possible to do what you love, get paid to do it, and improve individual lives. Each attorney dedicates their time to helping people in need and goes above and beyond to ensure there is some form of aid to those who require it. By providing an in-depth and hands on experience, the attorneys at VLP have created an environment to both train and inspire the future generation of advocates.

An important lesson I learned from this fellowship is that the best way to ensure a better future for our fellow human beings is to provide others with the tools to advocate. As we learn to identify patterns of behavior, we are better able to prepare clients with proactive advice that will ensure their safety and well-being. It is important to recognize that the services provided by VLP come from a number of grants and resources. Without the funding from individuals and organizations allocating funds, there is a lack of resources for those who simply cannot afford it. The assistance provided by agencies such as VLP, the Family Justice Center, and Neighborhood Legal Services does not derive from profit. One of the most important lessons I have learned from this experience is that there must be people who care and push for funding of these programs. I applaud the efforts of these organizations and hope they are able to expand and provide for those in need. Nobody should be denied justice in a system solely based on lack of affordability.

I have felt honored to become a part of something that provides aid to people and makes a real positive impact on lives, supported by Garry Graber Fellowship . The clients who call range from general custody issues to severe life and death situations. The weight of these cases is balanced with the knowledge that the parties in need are going to receive help. I hope to one day become a permanent part of VLP or a similar organization when I have graduated from law school. To the attorneys, donors, and others, thank you for all you do!

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Name: Erica Dombrowski, ’22

Name of Fellowship: Garry Graber Fellowship

Placement: Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project: Family Help Desk

Location: Buffalo, NY (remote currently!)

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: There is a rare point in time where a person can find an intersection between what they are passionate about and what they are good at.”