Volunteer Spotlight: Justine Rousseau

The VLP is pleased to share this volunteer feature on Justine Rousseau, originally highlighted through ProBonoNet’s NYC Pro Bono Center. Justine shares her pro bono work and experience throughout her career, including as a volunteer attorney at VLP working on family law matters, and shares some great advice to law students, law graduates and anyone interested in pro bono work.   

Justine Rousseau headshotPrior to opening her own firm, Justine practiced at BigLaw firms including Morrison & Foerster.  Before attending law school, Justine worked for ten years in the finance industry.   She earned her JD from Georgetown University Law Center and holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Delaware. Justine also has an active pro bono practice. She helps individuals obtain uncontested divorces and represents individuals in child and spousal support matters in Family Court as a volunteer attorney with the Brooklyn Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer Project (“VLP). Although Justine was new to the area of family law when she started volunteering for the VLP in 2014, she dove right in and consistently accepted several clients at once. Justine also assists individuals in various family matters as a volunteer attorney with NY Court’s Access to Justice program.

 

On the professional benefits of volunteering“One of the areas of law I law wanted to learn more about was family law…VLP provided the training and additional resources through the staff attorneys that allowed me to learn the law and gain courtroom experience in a supportive environment all the while helping those in need.”

VLP: Tell us about yourself: your background, education, and the nature of your practice.

 JR: I am originally from Garden City, Long Island, but have adopted Brooklyn as my home.  After graduating from the University of Delaware with a BS in Business Administration, I worked for ten years in commercial real estate finance.  I then received my JD Georgetown University Law Center.  After law school I worked a large international law firm.  I loved the firm and the experience, but I had such broad interests that narrowing my focus was a challenge.  I eventually opened my own firm to give me the flexibility to indulge in many of the areas of law that interested me and where I thought I could make more of a discernible impact.  My practice focuses on commercial litigation and corporate law.

VLP: How did you first get involved with pro bono work and what types of pro bono cases have you handled?

JR: I first became in pro bono work at my first law firm.  The firm was very supportive of pro bono activities.  I assisted in obtaining a domestic violence order of protection for a party in DC and I also helped a non-profit explain complicated federal consumer finance laws to clients.  When I opened my own firm, I increased my pro bono work as a way to gain a breadth of practical experience in some of the areas of law that interested me in my early years as an attorney, which were not an option at my previous firms.

VLP: Has your pro bono work at the VLP assisted you professionally?

JR: VLP helped me tremendously.  One of the areas of law I wanted to learn more about was family law and thought that it might be a focus for my new firm.  VLP provided the training and additional resources through the staff attorneys that allowed me to learn the law and gain courtroom experience in a supportive environment all the while helping those in need.  I gained confidence in my oral argument skills.  I also learned that family law is a great pro bono activity for me, but not a focus of my practice.

VLP: Why do you continue to do pro bono at the Brooklyn VLP?

JR: Because the clients are great and so are the staff!

VLP: What advice would you give to law students or recent law graduates?

JR: I would encourage law students to do an internship or externship every semester after their first year.  A breadth of experience will increase your efficacy in whatever area you wind up practicing in and it will also help you refine what you want.  I would also encourage all law students, recent law graduates to be present and actually think through your career steps in a thoughtful manner. There is a difference between going with your gut and going with the flow.

VLP: Why is it important to do pro bono work?

JR: With great power comes great responsibility.  As an attorney, I sometimes feel powerless, when an argument doesn’t go my way or when an opposing party is successful in delaying the case. But I remind myself of all of the times that I have sat in the back of a courtroom and watched pro se litigants try to represent themselves, I am reminded of the power that comes with my proficiency in the language of the law, and how important it is to share that power with those without the resources to obtain it themselves.

Celebrating 25 Years: Anna Yasova

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.
Fern Finkel, Esq.
Daniel Gershburg, Esq.
Nazar Khan, Esq.
Anna Yasova, Esq.

Anna Yasova

Anna Yasova, Esq.

“Without dedicated volunteers many of those most in need of assistance will find themselves taken advantage of or trapped in undesirable situations.”

Anna Yasova graduated in 2014 from New York Law School, and initially came to the VLP to complete the required 50 hours of pro bono for admission to the New York Bar. Because of her prior background in uncontested divorce and consumer law, we felt comfortable assigning her clients in these areas. She efficiently began resolving both matrimonial and consumer debt matters with ease and patience. Anna soon took on several clients at a time, far exceeding her required hours. We are thrilled she found the VLP as she has become a regular presence at the VLP office. She is fluent in Russian and has donated her time translating for VLP cases and assisted Russian-speaking clients on a pro bono basis. Below, she discusses the learning process after obtaining her JD, the importance of passion in any field, and the humility pro bono work brings.

VLP: Tell us about yourself. What is the nature of your practice?

AY: I am a recently admitted attorney beginning my practice in family, immigration, and business law.

VLP: How did you first get involved with the Brooklyn VLP?

AY: I first learned about the VLP through the NYLS Office of Career Planning while looking for an organization through which I could complete my pro bono requirement.

VLP: Has your work at the VLP assisted you professionally?

AY: Volunteering with the VLP taught me to manage my own caseload and has given me a wonderful group of attorneys I can turn to when I need assistance. It also has given me opportunities to obtain additional professional training from area experts.

VLP: Why do you continue to do pro bono at the Brooklyn VLP?

AY: After a short time with the VLP I came to truly appreciate pro bono service and the people I volunteer alongside. The people we assist cannot afford to pay an attorney and rely on us to help them navigate difficult situations. I have seen the consequences of a client’s attempt to resolve legal issues by relying on advice from friends or associates not involved in legal practice and want to help keep other people from those same pitfalls. I enjoy putting my legal and language skills at the disposal of those who need it.

VLP: What advice would you give to law students or recent law graduates?

AY: The best advice I can offer law students and recent graduates is to find an area of law that really inspires them when choosing specialty. The most important steps we can take in the early stages of our careers are to lay a solid foundation for a practice that will keep us interested and engaged and to develop a support network we can rely on for guidance.

VLP: Why is it important to do pro bono work?

AY: As a law student or lawyer it’s easy to take our knowledge for granted, assuming that if something seems straightforward to us, it will appear that way to everyone. In truth it is our training and experience that allow us to navigate through an often intricate legal process.  Without dedicated volunteers many of those most in need of assistance can be taken advantage of or find themselves trapped in situations they can’t resolve on their own.

VLP: Can you share any VLP success stories?

AY: A number of my cases involved divorces where the marriages had broken down years ago. A surprising number of these cases involved parties that had separated over a decade ago, but were unable to move on with their lives and relationships because they weren’t able to afford an attorney.  Helping clients move on is also a large part of volunteering with CLARO, where I was able to help a number of older client’s stop collections activity against them so they could have peace of mind and a clear conscience for their retirement.

VLP: What can you take from earlier experiences at the VLP and what has meant the most to you?

AY: My experience at the VLP has taught me the importance of looking beyond the legal issue to the person its affecting. Knowing that clients have confidence in my skills and value my advice enough to contact me for help with other issues has truly meant the most to me.

Celebrating 25 Years: Nazar Khan

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.
Fern Finkel, Esq.
Daniel Gershburg, Esq.
Nazar Khan, Esq.
Anna Yasova, Esq.

Nazar Khan1

Nazar Khan, Esq.

“My VLP volunteer work was so gratifying that I decided to serve the low-income community in my own practice.”

Nazar Khan is a solo practitioner who came to the VLP in 2005 to volunteer his family law services. Since then, he has won several awards from the VLP and other organizations in recognition of his incredible pro bono work. When Mr. Khan first volunteered with the VLP, the VLP promptly started referring Family Court cases to him.  He almost never said “no.”  In his first eight months of volunteering, he took an astounding fifty-three cases for the VLP and contributed hundreds of hours of pro bono service. He has also served as a mentor for new volunteer attorneys in family law. Below, he answers a few questions about his involvement with the VLP.

VLP: Tell us about yourself. How did you first get involved with the Brooklyn VLP?

NK: I graduated from Washburn University School of Law in 2004 and became a member of the New York Bar the next year. Throughout my last year of law school, my mind was preoccupied with ideas of how to contribute and give back to my community that gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of becoming an attorney. I grew up in Flushing, Queens and went to Queens College in Flushing, but went to law school in Kansas! So naturally, when I graduated from law school, I rushed back home and searched for organizations that served the underprivileged in the community. Initially I did some work with Mark Weliky of the Queens Bar Association VLP but then reached out to Jeannie Costello of the Brooklyn VLP.

VLP:     What types of matters have you handled at the VLP?

NK: I started doing pro bono cases for the VLP in 2005. By the end of 2007, I had done well over 50 cases and donated more than 1,000 hours. The cases involved child support, custody/visitation, guardianships, orders of protection, and matrimonial cases.

VLP:      Has your work at the VLP assisted you professionally?

NK: Back in the day, the VLP had a policy not to get involved with contested matrimonial cases. But when I started doing matrimonial cases, some clients left such a great impression on me that I made an exception to the rule. I did several contested cases on a pro bono basis. My VLP volunteer work was so gratifying that I decided to serve the low-income community in my own practice. I applied to the assigned counsel 18b panel and am still working and serving indigent litigants of Brooklyn.

Celebrating 25 Years: Daniel Gershburg

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.
Fern Finkel, Esq.
Daniel Gershburg, Esq.
Nazar Khan, Esq.
Anna Yasova, Esq.

Daniel Gershburg

Daniel Gershburg, Esq.

“Many times we forget the power we have as attorneys to literally transform lives.  Pro bono helps one remember that.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Daniel Gershburg always had an entrepreneurial spirit. After graduating New York Law School, Daniel immediately opened the doors to his own law office, hoping to change the way solo attorneys are perceived. Since 2007, Daniel has helped sixty VLP bankruptcy clients get back on their feet. Below, he tells us about his entwined journey of starting his own practice and doing pro bono work. 

VLP: Tell us about yourself. What is the nature of your practice?

DG: I started my practice at the age of 24 in a tiny office in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.  I took every case that came in until I honed my skills in Bankruptcy.  An instructional video (yes, video) of Greg Messer and David Doyaga (whom I refer to as the Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp of Bankruptcy) led me on my way. We are now based in New York City and focus on consumer bankruptcy and residential real estate transactions.

VLP: How did you first get involved with the Brooklyn VLP?

DG: I wanted to learn Bankruptcy by doing pro bono work.  I found the VLP online and the rest was history.

VLP: Has your work at the VLP assisted you professionally?

DG: It allowed me to learn the law and, just as importantly, the procedure surrounding bankruptcy without constantly worrying about a malpractice suit.  More importantly, I’ve actually seen the relief on the faces of my pro bono clients when their case is discharged.  You cannot put a price on that.

VLP: Why do you continue to do pro bono at the Brooklyn VLP?

DG: Because I believe we have an obligation to help.  Many times we forget the power we have as attorneys to literally transform lives.  Pro bono helps one remember that.

VLP: What advice would you give to law students or recent law graduates?

Get a refund.  Totally kidding (maybe).  You need to hustle.  You need to go out and meet everyone you possibly can and take any job you can in this market.  Get experience.  Find out what you don’t want to do.  Then try something else and find out what you do want to do.  Then spend every single moment learning and writing down mistakes.  Improve every day.  It’s called the “practice” of law for a reason.

VLP: Why is it important to do pro bono work?

DG: As I mentioned before, it’s an obligation.  People depend on our help.  

VLP: Can you share any VLP success stories?

DG: No specific one comes to mind.  I can tell you that when people walk out of a meeting of the creditors, this calmness washes over them.  I’d take that feeling over a huge client any day.

VLP: What can you take from earlier experiences at the VLP and what has meant the most to you?

DG: The dedication of the people who work for VLP.  Sidney specifically.  They’re doing God’s work.  Would love to see more like them in our profession.

Celebrating 25 Years: Fern Finkel

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.
Fern Finkel, Esq.
Daniel Gershburg, Esq.
Nazar Khan, Esq.
Anna Yasova, Esq.

Fern Finkel

Fern J. Finkel, Esq.

“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.

Celebrating 25 Years: Charles Coleman

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.
Fern Finkel, Esq.
Daniel Gershburg, Esq.
Nazar Khan, Esq.
Anna Yasova, Esq.

Coleman photo

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.

Celebrating 25 Years

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.
Fern Finkel, Esq.
Daniel Gershburg, Esq.
Nazar Khan, Esq.
Anna Yasova, Esq.

Coleman photo

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 & 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 Senior Legal Education and Assistance Program and the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office clinic for pro se debtor litigants. He received his B.S. degree in Criminal Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice; his M.S. degree in Urban Affairs from Hunter College and, in 1986, his J.D. degree from St. John’s University.

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 & Paralegal Studies Department of one of CUNY’s senior colleges – N.Y.C. 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 with them 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.

 

Fern Finkel

Fern J. Finkel, Esq.

“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 with her office 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 Legal Education and Assistance Project, known as LEAP, at the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, of which she is a Board Member. The LEAP project 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 Brooklyn Volunteer Lawyers Project 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.

 

Daniel Gershburg

Daniel Gershburg, Esq.

“Many times we forget the power we have as attorneys to literally transform lives.  Pro Bono helps one remember that.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Daniel Gershburg always had an entrepreneurial spirit. After graduating New York Law school, Daniel immediately opened the doors to his own law office, hoping to change the way small attorneys are perceived. Since 2007, Daniel has helped sixty VLP bankruptcy clients get back on their feet. Below, he tells us about his entwined journey of starting his own practice and doing pro bono work. 

VLP: Tell us about yourself. What is the nature of your practice?

DG: I started my practice at the age of 24 in a tiny office in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.  I took every case that came in until I honed my skills in Bankruptcy.  An instructional video (yes, video) of Greg Messer and David Doyaga (whom I refer to as the Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp of Bankruptcy) led me on my way. We are now based in New York City and focus on consumer Bankruptcy and residential real estate transactions.

VLP: How did you first get involved with the Brooklyn VLP?

DG: I wanted to learn Bankruptcy by doing pro bono work.  I found the VLP online and the rest was history.

VLP: Has your work at the VLP assisted you professionally?

DG: It allowed me to learn the law and, just as importantly, the procedure surrounding Bankruptcy without constantly worrying about a malpractice suit.  More importantly, I’ve actually seen the relief on the faces of my pro bono clients when their case is discharged.  You cannot put a price on that.

VLP: Why do you continue to do pro bono at the Brooklyn VLP?

DG: Because I believe we have an obligation to help.  Many times we forget the power we have as attorneys to literally transform lives.  Pro Bono helps one remember that.

VLP: What advice would you give to law students or recent law graduates?

Get a refund.  Totally kidding (maybe).  You need to hustle.  You need to go out and meet everyone you possibly can and take any job you can in this market.  Get experience.  Find out what you don’t want to do.  Then try something else and find out what you do want to do.  Then spend every single moment learning and writing down mistakes.  Improve every day.  It’s called the “practice” of law for a reason.

VLP: Why is it important to do pro bono work?

DG: As I mentioned before, it’s an obligation.  People depend on our help.  

VLP: Can you share any VLP success stories?

DG: No specific one comes to mind.  I can tell you that when people walk out of a meeting of the creditors, this calmness washes over them.  I’d take that feeling over a huge client any day.

VLP: What can you take from earlier experiences at the VLP and what has meant the most to you?

DG: The dedication of the people who work for VLP.  Sydney specifically.  They’re doing God’s work.  Would love to see more like them in our profession.

 

Nazar Khan1Nazar Khan2

Nazar Khan, Esq.

“My VLP volunteer work was so gratifying that I decided to serve the low-income community in my own practice.”

Nazar Khan is a sole practitioner who came to the VLP in 2005 to volunteer his services as a family law attorney. Since then, has won several awards from the VLP and other organizations in recognition of his incredible pro bono work. Mr. Khan first volunteered his services in July 2005 and the VLP promptly started referring Family Court cases to him.  He almost never said “NO.”  In the eight months since he first came to the VLP, Mr. Khan took an astounding fifty-three cases for the VLP and contributed hundreds of hours of pro bono service.  Khan has also served as a mentor for new volunteer attorneys in family law. Below, he answers a few questions about his involvement with the VLP.

VLP: Tell us about yourself. How did you first get involved with the Brooklyn VLP?

NK: I graduated from Washburn University School of Law in 2004 and became a member of the New York Bar the next year. Throughout my last year of law school, my mind was preoccupied with ideas of how to contribute and give back to my community that gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of becoming an attorney. I grew up in Flushing, Queens and went to Queens College in Flushing, but went to law school in Kansas! So naturally, when I graduated from law school, I rushed back home and searched for organizations that served the underprivileged in the community. Initially I did some work with Mark Weliky of the Queens Bar Association VLP but then reached out to Jeannie Costello of the Brooklyn VLP.

VLP:     What types of matters have you handled at the VLP?

NK: I started doing pro bono cases for the VLP in 2005. By the end of 2007, I had done well over 50 cases and donated more than 1,000 hours. The cases involved child support, custody/visitation, guardianships, orders of protection, and matrimonial cases.

VLP:      Has your work at the VLP assisted you professionally?

NK: Back in the day, the VLP had a policy not to get involved with contested matrimonial cases. But when I started doing matrimonial cases, some clients left such a great impression on me that I made an exception to the rule. I did several contested cases on a pro bono basis. My VLP volunteer work was so gratifying that I decided to serve the low-income community in my own practice. I applied to the assigned counsel 18b panel and am still working and serving indigent litigants of Brooklyn.

 

 

Anna Yasova

Anna Yasova, Esq.

“Without dedicated volunteers many of those most in need of assistance will find themselves taken advantage of or trapped in undesirable situations.”

Anna Yasova graduated in 2014 from New York Law School, and initially came to the VLP to complete the required 50 hours of pro bono for admission to the New York Bar. Because of her prior background in uncontested divorce and consumer law, we felt comfortable assigning her clients in these areas. She efficiently began resolving both matrimonial and consumer debt matters with ease and patience. Anna soon took on several clients at a time, far exceeding her required hours. We are thrilled she found the VLP as she has become a regular presence at the VLP office. She is fluent in Russian and has donated her time translating for VLP cases and assisted Russian-speaking clients on a pro bono basis. Below, she discusses the learning process after obtaining her JD, the importance of passion in any field, and the humility pro bono work brings.

VLP: Tell us about yourself. What is the nature of your practice?

AY: I am a recently admitted attorney beginning my practice in family, immigration, and business law.

VLP: How did you first get involved with the Brooklyn VLP?

AY: I first learned about the VLP through the NYLS Office of Career Planning while looking for an organization through which I could complete my pro bono requirement.

VLP: Has your work at the VLP assisted you professionally?

AY: Volunteering with the VLP taught me to manage my own caseload and has given me a wonderful group of attorneys I can turn to when I need assistance. It also has given me opportunities to obtain additional professional training from area experts.

VLP: Why do you continue to do pro bono at the Brooklyn VLP?

AY: After a short time with the VLP I came to truly appreciate pro bono service and the people I volunteer alongside. The people we assist cannot afford to pay an attorney and rely on us to help them navigate difficult situations. I have seen the consequences of a client’s attempt to resolve legal issues by relying on advice from friends or associates not involved in legal practice and want to help keep other people from those same pitfalls. I enjoy putting my legal and language skills at the disposal of those who need it.

VLP: What advice would you give to law students or recent law graduates?

AY: The best advice I can offer law students and recent graduates is to find an area of law that really inspires them when choosing specialty. The most important steps we can take in the early stages of our careers are to lay a solid foundation for a practice that will keep us interested and engaged and to develop a support network we can rely on for guidance.

VLP: Why is it important to do pro bono work?

AY: As a law student or lawyer it’s easy to take our knowledge for granted, assuming that if something seems straightforward to us, it will appear that way to everyone. In truth it is our training and experience that allow us to navigate through an often intricate legal process.  Without dedicated volunteers many of those most in need of assistance will find themselves taken advantage of or trapped in undesirable situations. 

VLP: Can you share any VLP success stories?

AY: A number of my cases involved divorces where the marriages had broken down years ago. A surprising number of these cases involved parties that had separated  over a decade ago, but were unable to move on with their lives and relationships because they weren’t able to afford an attorney.  Helping clients move on is also a large part of volunteering with CLARO, where I was able to help a number of older client’s stop collections activity against them so they could have peace of mind and a clear conscience for their retirement.

VLP: What can you take from earlier experiences at the VLP and what has meant the most to you?

AY: My experience at the VLP has taught me the importance of looking beyond the legal issue to the person its affecting. Knowing that clients have confidence in my skills and value my advice enough to contact me for help with other issues has truly meant the most to me.

 

Volunteer Spotlight: Judie Ilus

 

Judie is a 20Ilus headshot09 graduate of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center. Prior to law school, Judie attended Boston University and graduated with a degree in Economics. Judie came to the Brooklyn Volunteer Lawyers Project in May 2012, wanting to gain some litigation experience in the area of family law, and jumped into the work of the VLP without hesitation.  Since getting involved with the VLP, Judie has taken on five custody/visitation cases, five support cases and two uncontested divorces.  Some of these cases have been very complicated and have developed into cases involving orders of protection, and Judie has managed to get excellent results.  To date Judie has provided over 300 hours of pro bono services to the VLP.  In January 2013, Judie opened up her own practice where she focuses on family and matrimonial law.

VLP: Please give us a brief overview of your education; area of practice; how long you’ve been volunteering with the VLP; and any other biographical information you’d like us to know.

JI: I received my undergraduate degree in Economics from Boston University. Thereafter, I started attending law school at the University of South Carolina School of Law but decided that Touro College was a better fit in that it was very public service oriented and I always hoped that I could use my education and training to help the community and those in need in one way or another. I have been volunteering with the VLP since the Spring of 2012.

VLP: How did you become involved with the Volunteer Lawyers Project and what types of pro bono cases have you handled though the VLP?

JI: I became involved with the Volunteer Lawyers Project because it is one of the few volunteer opportunities for attorneys in Brooklyn. It is well known in the borough and has a high reputation. I volunteer mainly in Family Court.

VLP: Why do you do pro bono work?

JI: I enjoy helping those in need. The legal process is difficult and draining both emotionally and financially, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for individuals who are barely able to get by. For many lay people, attorneys seem like the gate keepers of the judiciary. I’m a big believer in “sharing the wealth” and that with any gift comes a responsibility of sharing it in whichever way possible.

VLP: What are your recreational activities/pastimes?

JI: I love to spend time with friends and family, yoga, oil painting, reading, and exploring the outdoors.

VLP: What would you tell other attorneys who are thinking about volunteering with the VLP?

 JI: Volunteering is great. Unfortunately, I am sure all attorneys run into clients that are in need; however, such clients are screened through the initial phone call. Representing a client when I know that they are not going to pay, and that I do it fully for their benefit, keeps me down to earth and I believe makes me a better, more understanding  attorney for my paying clients.  Being able to help clients fight for their basic and fundamental rights such as the right to have a meaningful relationship with a child is just touching and empowering. A lot of what goes on in the area I volunteer in is very emotional and raw and unfortunately, a large amount of the litigants in Family Court truly cannot afford an attorney- even if they do not qualify for a free attorney. I enjoy being able to alleviate some of that burden. I personally think volunteering is a great way to supplement a legal career.

VLP: Any additional comments you may have?

 JI: This is an incredible organization with an amazing staff and I hope to have the opportunity to continue volunteering throughout my career.

 

VLP Volunteer Spotlight: Gail Torodash

Gail Torodash Headshot 2

Gail Torodash is an associate at a civil litigation firm in Manhattan.  She is an active volunteer fo the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) and has been representing VLP clients in the areas of child support, uncontested divorce, custody and visitation, foreclosure for the last two years. Below, she answers a few questions about her involvement with the VLP.

VLP:  Tell us a bit about your education and background, and how long you’ve been volunteering with the VLP.

Gail Torodash: Since graduating from Pennsylvania State, Dickinson School of Law in 2009, I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer with several non-profit organizations, including the Volunteer Lawyers Project. I became involved with the VLP about a year and a half ago, during the summer of 2012. I had just started a position at a mid-sized anti-trust firm, and was looking for opportunities to litigate on behalf of low-income New Yorkers. My background is primarily in family law, along with commercial and securities litigation.

VLP: How did you become involved with the Volunteer Lawyers Project and what types of pro bono cases have you handled though the VLP?

GT: A couple of years ago I received a bar association email about free CLE training programs offered through the VLP. In return for the credits and the training, I committed to take on a pro bono case. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to fulfill my credit hours, receive practical training, and gain more experience in court doing the kind of work I want to do. The VLP handles cases in the areas of uncontested divorce, support, custody, consumer debt, wills, bankruptcy, 17A guardianship, and foreclosure; I currently have clients for uncontested divorce, paternity, child support, and foreclosure.

VLP: Why do you do pro bono work?

GT: There are many low-income New Yorkers who cannot afford legal representation, which creates barriers to securing their rights and benefits. My education and training gives me the ability to advocate for them, and the VLP gives me the opportunity to gain experience in areas beyond the scope of my usual practice. Handling my first pro bono case through this organization was a deeply rewarding experience, so I kept volunteering. My work with the VLP has also been a great opportunity for learning and networking.

VLP:  What are your recreational activities/pastimes?

GT: In addition to my pro bono legal work, I’ve volunteered with several animal rescue organizations and have fostered many special-needs pets. I explore cultural events around New York, pull down my competitive bowling team’s average, and have been practicing yoga for the past few years.

VLP: What would you tell other attorneys who are thinking about volunteering with the VLP?

GT: I would strongly encourage more attorneys to volunteer with the VLP. The staff attorneys are extremely knowledgeable and supportive, and there are so many opportunities to do advocacy work and explore different areas of law for an attorney looking to gain exposure to various fields. Since taking on my first case I’ve received continued guidance from the VLP’s staff.

VLP: Any additional comments you may have?

GT: I’ve successfully recruited other colleagues to get involved with pro bono work at the VLP, not only for the free CLE credits, but also by working on cases together. It’s convenient if your work schedule makes the commitment difficult. You do not have to be a member of the Brooklyn Bar Association in order to participate in any of the pro bono projects – I am a member of the New York County Lawyers Association (which hosts additional pro bono programs, such as the U.S. Tax Court Project, the Legal Counseling Project, a CLARO clinic, and Project Restore).