Hofstra Law’s Access to Justice Incubator Has Merged with the Center for Children, Families and the Law

 In Family Law, Spring 2018

In June 2013, the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University established the Hofstra Law Access to Justice Incubator, a unique program based upon the increasingly popular “incubator” model, to provide local families in need with certain low-bono and pro bono civil legal services that are often not addressed by existing not-for-profit and public service agencies. The goal was to provide critical services to a certain catchment area, while allowing hands-on postgraduate experience for selected Hofstra Law graduates who would serve as salaried fellows of the Incubator for staggered one-year terms.

The professional benefits were manifold — to provide a supervised and collaborative environment for young attorneys to cultivate their talent for a defined period of time (i.e., “to incubate”), to apply their academic knowledge, and to develop skills to make them practice-ready for long-term hire. At the same time, the program assisted members of our community in need and sought to foster a sense of responsibility for attorneys to use their professional licenses to contribute or dedicate themselves to public service.

Since its inception, the Incubator has been embraced by the local bar and the judiciary and has been welcomed by other not-for-profit service providers on Long Island. We have been fortunate to attract talented participants, have a steady flow of work, and help many families in our area address and overcome daunting circumstances. After having opened over 220 cases in the last four years, the Incubator has recently merged with Hofstra Law’s Center for Children, Families and the Law (CCFL), and I am proud to have transitioned from the position of executive director and managing attorney of the Incubator to managing attorney and project director of the CCFL. As a result of this affiliation, the mission and activities of the Incubator will continue under the CCFL umbrella, enabling the CCFL to expand its existing programs and pilot projects which are designed to enhance the law school experience while strengthening the role of Hofstra Law and its graduates in the community.

Many of our cases involve individuals with an intellectual or cognitive impairment who may require a guardianship under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law. We may be appointed by the Nassau County Supreme Court in such proceedings to serve as an independent investigator responsible for researching facts and applicable law and making recommendations to the presiding judge who is adjudicating capacity and determining the need for the appointment of a third party to make personal needs and property management decisions.

Alternatively, we may be appointed by the court as the attorney for the person with an alleged incapacity to advocate for them and ensure that their rights and civil liberties are preserved to the greatest extent possible. As these cases involve individuals who suffer with functional limitations and who may be unable to properly advocate for themselves, it is critical that we seek appropriate protections for their continued care, safety, and long-term financial stability.

We are also frequently retained by families to assist with the filing or modification of SCPA 17-A guardianship proceedings in Nassau County Surrogate’s Court for people diagnosed with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Once an individual reaches the age of majority, the family is no longer legally authorized to make decisions on their behalf, including medical decisions which require access to private health information.

We assist our clients by making application to the court for their appointment as a legal guardian so that they can continue in the role of an effective advocate and caretaker for the disabled person. These matters are generally uncontested but require the drafting and coordination of many forms and sworn statements from family members and medical professionals for submission and consideration by the court at the scheduled hearing date.

Although these specialized areas of practice make up the majority of our caseload, we have also represented families seeking to obtain guardianship and special findings for unaccompanied minors in Nassau County Family Court for purposes of obtaining special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status. We have processed name-change applications for transgender youths. We routinely participate in the Volunteer Lawyers Project administered by Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee, Inc. to represent indigent tenants facing eviction summary proceedings in Nassau County District Court.

We also field many telephone inquiries and referrals from various sources to provide guidance or assistance with securing government or private benefits or accessing and utilizing the NYSUCS Court Help website so that individuals may prepare documents or pleadings on their own without the formal retention of counsel.

Our specialized areas of practice allow our participating law graduates to learn and develop critical lawyering skills, such as interviewing clients and witnesses; fact-gathering; research and analysis; eliciting testimony; negotiation tactics; oral advocacy; interacting with adversaries, colleagues and judges; file organization; time management; and persuasive writing — all proficiencies that are desirable, marketable and relevant to any future law-related employment.

As the newest component of the CCFL, our focus will remain on the creation of skilled and practice-ready attorneys and the belief that early exposure to pro bono and low-bono representation will instill a future commitment to legal services in the public interest. We are delighted that all of the postgraduates who have successfully completed their fellowships have, to date, accepted permanent employment in field of public service.

Nine postgraduate fellows have successfully completed their fellowships with the Incubator thus far and accepted positions as assistant district attorneys in New York City; staff attorney for the Domestic Violence Project at Safe Horizon;  associate in a private law firm handling employment and wage-discrimination claims;  staff attorney with Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee, Inc.; agency attorney with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services; staff attorney with SelfHelp Community Services, Inc.; staff attorney with New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG); and  staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society of Nassau County.

We look forward to the opportunity to continue our objectives while contributing to the greater success and impact of the CCFL. In order to sustain our programs, we rely in part, upon the generosity of our benefactors who recognize the importance of our work. To make a contribution and further the continuing missions of the CCFL, please visit our support page.

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