In honor of this special anniversary, the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project (“VLP”) highlights some of the remarkable volunteer attorneys whose pro bono work can be seen in the strength of the VLP today. The VLP model harnesses the talent of local professionals to make access to justice a reality for our clients; we could simply not do this without volunteers like those featured below. Celebrate your contribution to the VLP’s 25 years–read the inspiring stories of highlighted volunteers at different points in the VLP’s 25-year history and commit to 25 dollars a month in their honor.
Charles Coleman, Esq.
“Although it is sometimes heartbreaking to hear some of our clients’ stories, it is exhilarating to the nth degree to welcome the thanks from those whom we help and see them begin to get on with their lives.”
Charles E. Coleman, Esq. is a Professor Emeritus, who continues as an adjunct teaching at New York City College of Technology, CUNY. Charles has been doing volunteer work since the mid-1980s, first with the New York County Lawyers Association, assisting AIDS patients with credit and estate matters. He helped to organize a legal clinic, staffed by an all-attorney faculty and students, for indigent senior citizens in his college’s Department of Law and Paralegal Studies in 1990. Charles has been volunteering weekly at the VLP offices since the spring of 2006, representing and assisting pro se clients with uncontested divorces. Charles has also participated in the VLP’s National Grid Senior Legal Education and Assistance Program (“Senior LEAP) and the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (“CLARO”) clinic for pro se debtor litigants. He received his BS degree in Criminal Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, his MS degree in Urban Affairs from Hunter College and his JD degree from St. John’s University in 1986.
VLP: Please give a brief description of your work prior to your time at the VLP.
CC: Since 1988, I was the second of two founding faculty and have been teaching in the Law and Paralegal Studies Department of one of CUNY’s senior colleges – NYC College of Technology. During part of my 18 years there, I served as chair of that department. Prior to teaching I began volunteering during the height of the AIDS crisis by doing estate planning and dealing with debt collectors for clients of the New York County Lawyers Association/Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Shortly after joining the college faculty, we began giving open forum lectures for the public in various areas of law, utilizing skilled volunteer practitioners in those areas. Mainly we did wills, powers of attorney, health care proxies and uncontested divorces.
VLP: How did you get involved with the VLP?
CC: As a member of the Brooklyn Bar Association in the early 90’s I heard about the Volunteer Lawyers Project and approached them seeking to collaborate in the areas we undertook. We began accepting referrals from the VLP which vetted the clients so we could be sure we were only accepting those who really needed our help. When I resigned from the college, I decided to continue to teach on a part time basis and to expand my personal association with the VLP. This was only natural since I enjoyed doing both. I approached the VLP and, thus, occupy their offices one day each week.
VLP: Why do you do pro bono work?
CC: There are so many people who need legal help. There are not enough helpers. Those who provide that help are not taking clients from anyone. Those helped simply would do without and continue to be taken advantage of or not be able to prepare for their own and their families’ futures because of their circumstances. Although it is sometimes heartbreaking to hear some of our clients’ stories, it is exhilarating to the nth degree to welcome the thanks from those whom we help and see them begin to get on with their lives.
VLP: What do you gain as a volunteer for the VLP?
CC: For those just entering the practice of law and for those established or retiring, the satisfaction of really doing something to improve people’s lives might be enough. As a more practical matter in terms of making a living, the skills learned in practicing law and dealing with real clients is invaluable. In addition, meeting with other attorneys and interacting with others involved in the court system and the delivery of justice is something that would come a lot slower otherwise. The pro bono clients may also remember how you helped them and come as a paying client in the future and will certainly recommend you to others.