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.
“If not for the VLP, I would not have had the exposure to elder law, the mentoring, to enable me to shift fields and reinvent my professional career.”
Fern J. Finkel is an elder law attorney at Finkel and Fernandez in downtown Brooklyn. She has specialized in elder law and guardianship since 1998 and been in private practice since 1990. Prior to establishing her private practice, Fern was a litigator specializing in medical malpractice and personal injury at the law firm of Damashek, Godosky and Gentile.
Fern graduated with honors from New York University College of Business and Public Administration in 1981. She received her Juris Doctor Degree from Boston University School of Law in 1984.
As part of her private practice, Fern spends a significant amount of time working pro bono on behalf of the indigent elderly of Brooklyn. She has spearheaded the VLP’s National Grid Foundation Senior Legal Education and Assistance Project (“Senior LEAP”) at the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, of which she is a Board Member. Senior LEAP is dedicated to training attorneys to perform outreach at community and senior centers throughout Brooklyn, with a focus on assisting seniors to have their health care proxies and advance directives in place, avoiding the painful process of guardianship which might otherwise result.
Fern is the Chair of the Foundation Law Committee of the Brooklyn Bar Association, the Vice Chair of the Elder Law Committee of the Brooklyn Bar Association, a delegate to the New York State Bar Association Elder Law Section where she serves as Vice Chair of the Guardianship Committee, and a board member of Legal Services New York City where she also serves on the executive board. Fern served for years as a volunteer certified mediator with Safe Horizons for community disputes, PINS cases and custody matters, as well as with the United States District Court, Eastern District. Fern lectures for various bar associations on topics including the Role of the Guardian, Role of the Court Evaluator, Role of the Attorney for the Alleged Incapacitated Person, Advance Directives and Guardianship. Since 2004 she has served as a mentor attorney at the Elder Law Clinic at New York Law School. She is a co-facilitator of the Working Model of Guardianship- WINGS [Working Interdisciplinary Network of Guardianship Stakeholders] and serves on the Committees on Character and Fitness for the Second Judicial Department. She was listed as a New York Super Lawyer in the field of elder law in 2014 and 2015.
Fern has won numerous awards for her pro bono service, including the Brooklyn Bar Association Frieda S. Nisnewitz Award for Pro Bono Service (1996), an Award of Merit from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1997), the New York State Bar Association Pro Bono Award for the Second Judicial District (2003), the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York Hanna S. Cohn Pro Bono Award (2004), the Brooklyn Bar Association Distinguished Service Award (2009) and (2013) and the VLP’s Building Bridges Leadership Award (2013).
VLP: Tell us about yourself. What is the nature of your practice?
FF: I am an elder law and special needs attorney. I graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1984. My first career, as a medical malpractice attorney, was richly rewarding, and taught me how to think on my feet and try a case. This has been invaluable as part of my practice is contested guardianships.
VLP: How did you first get involved with the Brooklyn VLP?
FF: I had three babies in a row, and didn’t want to return to trying cases full time at that time. So I decided to open a home office and do per diem work. I learned about a pro bono opportunity to shadow an elder law attorney at a senior center, where I met the incomparable Geraldine Kennedy from Brooklyn Legal Services. She took me under her wing and taught me an entire new field of law.
VLP: Has your work at the VLP assisted you professionally?
FF: If not for the VLP, I would not have had the exposure to elder law, the mentoring, to enable me to shift fields and reinvent my professional career. The VLP helped me grow into the elder law attorney I am today.
VLP: Why do you continue to do pro bono at the Brooklyn VLP?
FF: Little to me is more rewarding than making a difference to those that need it.
VLP: What advice would you give to law students or recent law graduates?
FF: Find what you love and follow your passion. You may not get your dream job; it’s a hard market today and what we envision doing upon graduation may not happen. Supplement your experience with pro bono service. The need is great, and the benefits are plentiful. You will meet like-minded people, learn from those that will mentor you, branch out professionally, and expand your knowledge.
VLP: Why is it important to do pro bono work?
FF: There is a world of hurt and injustice. Access to legal services is simply not sufficient; attorneys charge heavily, and the free public programs often have long wait lists and criteria for getting assistance many cannot meet. Pro bono helps fill that gap. On a personal and professional level, I believe my pro bono service helped make me the attorney I am today. It sounds like a cliche, but I live by the words: “the more you give, the more you get back.” This holds true not on a day to day basis, but over the course of a lifetime, and over the span of the years in private practice. I speak with colleagues who ask me how to go about growing their practice, and I always tell them to volunteer. Some tell me they can’t afford to; I often tell them they can’t afford not to.
VLP: Can you share any VLP success stories?
FF: How much time do you have? From getting a three year old kidnapped child back to her impoverished mother in Poland by bringing a Hague petition, to soothing an octogenarian’s heart by having her only child’s gravestone engraving raised to the top of the stone so she could see the words “beloved daughter” when she visited without the grass covering the letters, to getting benefits for my clients who otherwise had to choose between medication and food, to getting safe discharge plans in place so my seniors could go home and not spend their lives in nursing homes…it goes on and on and on….
VLP: What can you take from earlier experiences at the VLP and what has meant the most to you?
FF: I believe I am an elder law attorney because of my experience at the VLP. Elder Law wasn’t even a course offered in law school; it wasn’t a field of practice one specialized in. As it emerged from strictly conservatorship to Article 81 guardianship and grew as an area of practice, I learned and grew by having the mentorship and opportunities provided by the VLP. I owe much of the success of my practice to the VLP, to Brooklyn Legal Services and Geraldine Kennedy.