NY, Iowa Bars Honored By ABA For Pandemic Pro Bono Work

By Marco Poggio | August 6, 2021, 11:30 AM EDT

As COVID-19 spread across the country last year, creating a huge access to justice crisis, bar associations turned into problem-solving powerhouses, stepping in to provide much needed legal services for free.

Engaging the state court system, the New York State Bar Association launched and directed an extensive network of attorneys, firms and law schools connecting pro bono lawyers to thousands of people in need. The Iowa State Bar Association created a pro bono hotline from scratch to assist people with legal matters.

For their pro bono work during the pandemic, the two state bar associations have won the Harrison Tweed Award, an award given jointly by the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in recognition of organizations that distinguish themselves for creative and cutting-edge projects addressing the civil legal needs of the poor.

The award will be presented Friday evening through a part-virtual, part-in-person ceremony in Chicago during the association's annual ABA meeting.

Theodore A. Howard, a partner at Wiley Rein LLP who chairs the ABA's legal aid committee, said the havoc the pandemic caused across the country required a quick response and heightened synergy among lawyer groups to address eviction defense, foreclosures, unemployment benefits denial, and navigating the health care system.

Volunteering attorneys had to step out of their comfort zone and learn things they didn't know how to do before. That required extensive training across the board. Bar associations around the country stood up to the task, he said.

"All of them in their own way were noteworthy and deserving of recognition," Howard said. "One thing that emerged out of this was a greater level of collaboration between local and state bar associations and legal services providers to train lawyers who wanted to be of assistance, but weren't sure how to do it."

The choice of the awardees — New York, which has won the award twice before, and Iowa, a first-timer — was a deliberate show of unity between cosmopolitan and rural America that are living through the shared reality of the pandemic, he said.

"We thought that it was appropriate to recognize bar associations that are, to some extent, at opposite ends of the spectrum," Howard said.

On the one hand, Iowa has a relatively small bar and a less-established culture of pro bono work. On the other is New York, the largest state bar association in America, is backed by powerful law firms with enormous resources and prominent attorneys, and has a long history of mobilization against poverty, Howard noted.

Here, Law360 Pulse looks at the two organizations that earned the 2021 Harrison Tweed Award.

New York State Bar Association

Four weeks after the first case of coronavirus infection was identified in New York on March 1, 2020, the New York State Bar Association announced it would create a digitally based statewide network of pro bono lawyers providing legal assistance to people affected by the pandemic and the economic shutdown.

A website connecting people across the state with attorneys and providing free training for lawyers in critical demand areas was set up in 45 days. The idea behind the platform was relatively simple, but its implementation required technological expertise and many hours of work, Hank Greenberg of Greenberg Traurig LLP, then the president of the bar association, told Law360 Pulse.

"Once we knew what the vision was, there was the technological challenge. We needed software gurus and coding experts," Greenberg said.

Two leading software companies doing work in the legal field, Clio and Paladin, provided essential expertise for free. Paladin volunteered a digital platform for pro bono legal assistance it already used with legal aid societies. Clio made available its coders. NYSBA's homepage was transformed into a COVID-19 resource center.

To direct the efforts of the pro bono network, the bar association launched its COVID-19 Recovery Task Force on April 15, 2020, in partnership with the New York State Unified Court System.

"We wanted to create an infrastructure for the long term, to build out the statewide network of volunteer attorneys," Greenberg said. "We worked around the clock."

Led by former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the task force recruited hundreds of pro bono volunteers to assist thousands of New Yorkers with unemployment insurance claim denials and appeals at a time when millions of people in the state were applying. More than 2,500 applicants received legal aid on unemployment problems during the first year the network operated.

After Scott M. Karson succeeded Greenberg as president of the bar association on June 1, 2020, the task force created 12 work groups to address the most urgent legal needs arising from the pandemic: unemployment, landlord-tenant law, health care, immigration, child guardianship, life planning, Surrogate's Court, domestic violence, family law, criminal justice, funding, and small businesses.

As part of that effort, more than 2,500 attorneys signed up to volunteer in those areas.

The working groups spearheaded several programs in partnerships with legal aid providers to fill access to justice gaps in health care, immigration, child guardianship, family law, criminal justice, and small business. To be able to meet the legal demand in those areas, the state bar association worked in conjunction with state agencies to create dozens of free continuing legal education courses and training modules, hosted through its online platform.

"Our bar association is immensely proud of receiving this award for the services that we delivered over the past year and a half," said T. Andrew Brown, the association's current president. "I've heard countless thank-yous and words of appreciation from so many out there, not only those in positions to give out awards, but those who have been served. That's what makes it real."

Iowa State Bar Association

The Iowa State Bar Association received the Tweed Award for creating a free legal hotline to assist Iowans with legal needs related to the pandemic, regardless of income. Working with the Iowa Legal Aid and the Polk County Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyers Project, the state bar association, which has about 7,000 members, launched the hotline on March 31, 2020.

"We're absolutely thrilled and honored to be given this award. It means a lot," Anjela Shutts, the state bar's president, told Law360.

Shutts said Iowa attorneys were crucial in assisting the population at the height of the pandemic, which hit the meatpacking industry particularly hard in the state. People turned to pro bono lawyers to help gain access to essential resources, such as state and federal unemployment insurance, or to deal with accumulating debts, evictions, and anxiety over child custody rights, she said.

"Health care workers, and rightfully so, received a lot of attention for their role during the pandemic. But lawyers were very important too," she said.

Monday through Friday during working hours, Iowans can call and ask for help on issues involving eviction, unemployment benefits denial, employment issues, or issues with health care providers. Callers who meet Iowa Legal Aid's eligibility guidelines are connected with one of the organization's attorneys. Those who don't are put in touch with ISBA's volunteer lawyers.

The state bar recruited about 200 attorneys to field the calls. In Polk County, Iowa's most populous county, ISBA works with Polk County's bar association to find attorney volunteers for callbacks.

During its first year operating, the hotline fielded 5,416 calls, approximately half of whom did not qualify for Iowa Legal Aid services and were referred to the ISBA. The state bar estimates its volunteers spent at least 1,100 hours advising callers.

"For that state and that bar association it was a very major undertaking, and one that appears to have been very successful in providing help to people who are in need," Howard said. "We thought that that was worthy of recognition."

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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