In response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, lawyers in New York have organized a multitude of pro bono projects aimed at addressing both the acute and long term needs in their communities. By way of background, New York State, which boasts nearly 20 million residents, has approximately 3 million people living below the poverty line; of the 8.4 million who call New York City home, 1.7 million live below the poverty line. In addition, of the approximately 465,000 businesses in New York, 99 percent are small businesses (defined as 100 employees are fewer); in New York City, which alone is home to approximately 220,000 businesses, 98 percent have fewer than 100 employees, and 89 percent are very small (fewer than 20 employees). Given the shutdown of essentially all schools and businesses to slow the spread of the virus, the pandemic has resulted in millions of people and small businesses who are in crisis for a host of reasons, many of whom will need swift, reliable and free legal advice.
To begin addressing these legal needs, as announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo on April 11, the State partnered with the New York State Bar Association to rapidly create a pro bono network of volunteer lawyers to provide New Yorkers in need with free legal assistance. The NYSBA first launched the Unemployment Insurance Pro Bono Assistance Network, which connects volunteer attorneys to New Yorkers across the state who are trying to better understand the Unemployment Insurance benefits system and application process. This effort, put in motion just days after the Governor’s announcement, included a free live training Webinar (now available on demand) for pro bono volunteers. Following the launch of Unemployment Insurance Pro Bono Assistance Network, the NYSBA, partnering with Paladin, expanded its reach and launched the NYSBA COVID-19 Pro Bono Network, which enables pro bono volunteers across the state to sign up to assist clients on a wide range of host of issues, including (but not limited to) employment counseling, divorce and marriage dissolution, health insurance, small businesses managing force majeure related contract disputes, child support or custody, probate and estate planning, bankruptcy, immigration and domestic violence.
In New York City, the City Bar Justice Center (“CBJC” or “City Bar”) also moved quickly to expand existing programming and to launch new initiatives to address COVID-19 related legal needs for New York City residents, including:
- The COVID-19 Small Business Initiative. Working with the CBJC’s Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project, the City Bar is serving as the initial site for what is expected to be a nationwide project spearheaded by Kirkland & Ellis and Lawyers for Good Government in which pro bono lawyers from law firms and corporations are matched with small businesses in the five boroughs of New York City for brief consultations, meeting via phone or through a remote meeting platform. A number of law firms rapidly assembled training materials, including video presentations, and in turn, solicited volunteer attorneys to provide pro bono assistance. The project has been up and running since early April and already has completed intake for approximately 500 small businesses. Many businesses have questions and issues relating to the application process for SBA loans/grants and the terms of forgiveness, as well as questions relating to commercial leases and tenant obligations. Roughly 90% of the matters have been for businesses with 1-10 employees, with 35% of those business owners being sole employees. 700 attorneys have signed up as prospective volunteers, representing nearly 75 different law firms and in-house legal departments;
- The COVID-19 Pro Bono Hotline Initiative. The City Bar has a Legal Hotline that receives 1,000 calls per month from vulnerable and low income New Yorkers seeking advice on a range of civil legal issues. With the assistance of Jenner, Paul Hastings and Paul Weiss, who collectively took the lead on preparing training materials, the expanded COVID-19 Pro Bono Hotline Initiative will use pro bono volunteers to address increased demand. Pro bono volunteers will take on brief-advice referrals on discrete COVID-19-related issues and provide advice to low income New Yorkers via telephone calls or via a remote meeting platform; and
- Legal Assistance to NYC front-line health care workers. With the support of Wachtell Lipton, Patterson Belknap and other firms, the CBJC's Planning and Estates Law Project is providing free, remote legal assistance to health care workers in preparing simple life-planning documents, including wills, powers of attorney, designation of stand by guardians and health care proxies.
Also in New York City, Lawyers Alliance for New York, with the assistance of Seyfarth and Orrick, launched a COVID-19 Employment Consultation Project to assist non-profits reeling in the midst of the pandemic. Pro bono volunteers provide a one hour employment advice session to a nonprofit on a host of legal issues, including employer obligations relating to the protection of employee health in the workplace while simultaneously protecting employee privacy, family leave for employees who are sick or caring for ill family members, and if the non-profit is unable to meet its expenses, exploring the options for temporarily or permanently reducing staff. The Project is being piloted in New York with the hope that it can be replicated in other cities across the United States.
Stroock and a number of other leading New York City law firms, partnering with a host of legal service providers, including VOLS (Volunteers of Legal Service), Legal Services NYC, The Legal Aid Society, IMPACCT Brooklyn and Takeroot Justice, launched the Small Business Legal Relief Alliance (“SBLRA”) aimed at assisting NYC small businesses. The coalition provides free focused holistic telephonic consultations with pro bono lawyers to assist small business impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic, with the goal of extending the lifeline of small businesses by helping avoid pitfalls that can accelerate closure, suggesting alternative strategies, guiding loan applications, and providing sound resources for reference going forward. According to Kevin Curnin of Stroock, the coalition was “designed to last, based on the pro bono community’s strengths – our relationships, resources and experience.” The SBLRA began advising clients in mid-April.