General

Due to COVID-19 court restrictions, there have been no adoption proceedings over the past 14 months in New York City, culminating in a backlog of children in need.  Although these proceedings are not considered to be “emergencies,” the failure to facilitate permanency on such a wide scale, in fact, poses a threat to the health and safety of children.  As courts are beginning to hear these matters again, and given the tremendous unmet need for legal services, Proskauer is partnering with Mobilization for Justice’s Kinship Caregiver Law Project to provide the pro bono legal support needed to help stabilize families.

In the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working on pro bono matters ranging from criminal justice to voting rights to veterans’ benefits.  To help address legal challenges and needs amplified by the pandemic, Proskauer has developed a number of new pro bono partnerships and has called upon its lawyers to take on more matters and expand the program’s reach.  Late last month, I took advantage of one such opportunity as I consulted with an entrepreneur who is in the initial stages of starting a business.

Education and social justice have long been core pillars of Proskauer’s commitment to public service. Despite the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, our corporate social responsibility programs have enabled lawyers and business services professionals throughout the Firm to connect with student groups across the country for engaging, interactive workshops focusing on college and career readiness topics. Expanding that mission, this week we are pleased to launch a new partnership with the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) and its “Learn and Earn” youth-focused programming.

Founded in 1965, CPC empowers Asian American, immigrant, and low-income communities in New York City by ensuring they have equitable access to the resources and opportunities needed to thrive. Today, CPC is the nation’s largest Asian American social services organization, supporting 60,000 individuals and families. The “Learn and Earn” program is a year-round afterschool enrichment program for high school juniors and seniors. Youth are actively engaged in leadership development, college preparedness, career exploration, community service, internships, and more.

Proskauer was privileged to host a panel presentation with Her Justice this month to raise awareness of economic and legal obstacles facing women who are living in poverty in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel was moderated by Proskauer associate Elizabeth Siegel, a member of the Her Justice Junior Advisory Board, and featured Her Justice attorneys Hamra Ahmad, Anna Maria Diamanti, and Prathiba Desai. With support from pro bono lawyers at Proskauer and other law firms, Her Justice provides family law and immigration representation to women of limited means, most of whom are mothers and survivors of intimate partner violence.

Among other obstacles, the panelists highlighted the many hurdles the public health crisis has caused for low-income women seeking legal relief in family court. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, accessing family court was challenging for Her Justice’s clients because the court required them to appear in person. Clients often had to wait several hours even for a brief appearance, which was particularly difficult and financially burdensome for those who needed to arrange for child care or time off from work. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, the New York City Family Court closed except for “essential services” such as emergency proceedings for orders of protection, which are being heard virtually. While the ability to obtain orders of protection during the pandemic is critical for vulnerable women, participating in virtual hearings has created yet another set of challenges for women living in poverty who may not be able to access the technology needed for remote hearings. The lack of access to a stable internet connection and a confidential location to safely discuss sensitive legal issues has proven to be especially difficult.

In 2014, I had the privilege of representing two extraordinary young asylum seekers who had fled from Macedonia, where, because they are a gay couple, they had suffered extreme homophobic violence and sexual abuse at the hands of civilians and police officers.  In 2021, I had the honor of helping them become U.S. citizens.

In reflecting on my clients’ seven-year journey to United States citizenship, I am reminded of how much has changed, but also how much has unfortunately remained the same and how far we have yet to go in the pursuit of LGBTQ human rights both at home and abroad.

The first of my two Macedonian clients arrived in the U.S. in 2012, and the second client joined him here in May 2013, just one month before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013).  In Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), through which Congress had sought to define “marriage” and “spouse” in more than 1,000 federal laws and federal regulations in a way that excluded same-sex spouses, thereby depriving them of the benefits that would come with federal recognition of their marriages and imposing “a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter same-sex marriages.”  Id. at 770.  The Supreme Court found that DOMA deprived gay and lesbian married couples of equal liberty under the Fifth Amendment because it interfered with the equal dignity of marriages under State laws recognizing marriage between same-sex spouses.

Have you read Caste? Partnership With Children featured the book’s author Isabel Wilkerson at the organization’s inaugural Women’s Leadership Breakfast on March 9. Proskauer was proud to be among the event underwriters, a collaboration made possible through the Firm’s corporate social responsibility program.

As part of Proskauer’s Women’s History Month celebration, colleagues in the Proskauer Women’s Alliance and the Black Lawyers Affinity Group, among others from Proskauer, had the chance to attend this remarkable event and hear insights from Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Proskauer is proud to represent Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors d/b/a UNITE, a non-profit collaborative started by Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, as pro bono counsel in connection with the planning and production of “The Call to Unite,” a 24-hour livestreaming event beginning on Friday, May 1 at 8 p.m. EDT. Mr. Shriver is leading the event, which will feature Oprah Winfrey, Presidents William J. Clinton and George W. Bush, Deepak Chopra, and a multitude of other guests.

Given the challenges facing people across the globe from the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Shriver sought a way to come together and create a much-needed “bear hug” for humanity. The Call to Unite will be a 24/7 livestreaming event that encourages people to huddle around the screen to watch spiritual, cultural, and civic leaders, and performers, and to join them in unity and solidarity to face the pandemic together. The organizers of this event hope to recalibrate viewers’ moods and encourage them to engage with their communities and make donations to help those in need.

COVID-19 has presented us with unprecedented challenges around the globe. We wish everyone good health.

Our Firm remains committed to the many students we work with on a regular basis through our CSR programs. Although the virus has made it impossible to continue our face-to-face mentoring, we are connecting through webinars, phone and online meetings.

Most recently, we were able to virtually host a class with John Jay College students on the topic of law and social justice. Our pro bono partner, Bill Silverman, led the videoconference, and we had wonderful attendance and participation as we discussed the need for criminal justice reform during the COVID crisis. Students shared thoughts about measures we need to take to ensure safety in our prisons; our strong consensus was that prisoners with medical conditions who do not pose a threat to public safety should be released.

To consider the great need, among people of limited means, for civil legal services during the COVID-19 crisis, a good starting point is where we were before the crisis started.  In short, civil legal resources for the poor in the United States are woefully inadequate.  According to the Legal Services Corporation, which documents the justice gap in America, between 62% and 72% of civil legal needs among low-income Americans are addressed inadequately or not at all.  Indeed, the United States fares very poorly in this regard when compared to other western democracies.

The current health crisis would be devastating under any circumstances but, from a legal standpoint, this crisis has laid bare the long-term challenges we face.