Marcia Levy
May 1, 2019 · 6 min read

1984: The year that Orwell made infamous. When Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” hit the airwaves and Apple first sold its first Mac computers.

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VOLS was formed on Law Day in 1984.

It was also the year when the federal government instituted painful cuts to legal aid in the United States.

In response, on May 1, 1984— Law Day — the NYC Bar Association announced the creation of VOLS, Volunteers of Legal Service, with the explicit goal to provide pro bono legal services in civil matters affecting low-income New Yorkers. The call was led by Bar Association Chair Louis A. Craco and former Secretary of State and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett partner Cyrus R. Vance.

Amidst federal budget cuts that severely limited access to legal services, VOLS challenged New York’s legal establishment with an innovative paradigm: embedding pro bono in law firm or corporate culture. Pro bono service was already an ethical obligation under New York State’s Rules of Professional Conduct, but now it would comprise a coordinated effort to help close the justice gap in our community.

That initial challenge gave rise to a successful civic initiative that marks its 35th anniversary in 2019. VOLS rallies support from the city’s best-regarded law firms and in-house legal departments, and provides pro bono attorneys with the skills, knowledge and training to meet the needs of underserved New Yorkers: children and the elderly; mothers in prison; immigrant youth; under-resourced entrepreneurs; unemployed workers; veterans; and the LGBTQ community, in collaboration with over 200 community organizations and institutional partners citywide.

Law firms have participated in VOLS projects since its creation. In the last year alone, over 1,000 attorneys and legal staff from 60 firms and legal departments contributed over 24,000 hours to pro bono work via VOLS, roughly equivalent to $8.8 million in billing.

These efforts have provided access to justice for over 2,900 New Yorkers in 2018–19.

John S. Kiernan, immediate past president of the NYC Bar Association, partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, and longtime VOLS board member, describes VOLS’ unique role in the legal community:

“VOLS’ pro bono model is different: From a ‘small-but-mighty’ base, VOLS leverages firms’ volunteer resources to achieve large volumes of volunteer work.”

VOLS pro-bono attorneys regularly visit prisons and jails to meet with incarcerated mothers on family law issues related to visitation and custody. VOLS’ microenterprise work supports economic development by providing free business legal services to entrepreneurs and business owners who could not otherwise afford representation. We hold monthly workshops at senior centers citywide, year in and year out, to help people with life-planning needs — training legions of lawyers in the process. Our school-based clinics help connect undocumented young people and their families with legal resources to secure their immigration status.

At our inception, VOLS enlisted 50 prominent New York City firms and corporate legal departments. Today, most of those firms continue to work with VOLS. They have been joined by other law firms and volunteers, as well as by a growing network of community-based organizations who partner with VOLS.

Our key infrastructure — the ability to connect people with legal resources, and mobilize lawyers to confidentially represent clients facing legal obstacles that threaten to disrupt their lives — is one aspect of what makes VOLS unique, and our contributions enduring.

That dedication, combined with VOLS’ nimble professional team and the organizational capacity to identify acute and meet needs, flows from a lean, efficient structure. VOLS can adopt projects that respond to urgent needs: VOLS facilitated end-of-life and other directives for a generation for whom HIV was a death sentence. Bringing members of the trust and estates bar into hospital rooms of people with AIDS to complete wills and health care directives — many dying within days — gave their clients peace of mind. This model for community-attorney partnerships, in collaboration with health-care providers and social workers, set a standard for interdisciplinary VOLS projects.

VOLS helps Vietnam-era veterans who have faced difficult times since their return, many suffering from disabilities, post-traumatic stress and homelessness. VOLS is honored to serve this particular community. An upcoming day of service — training attorneys in trusts and estates, and working with LGBTQ veterans to draft life-planning documents –with contributions by VOLS, SAGE (Services and Advocacy for LGBTQ Elders), Bank of America, and the law firm McGuire Woods, typifies VOLS’s collaborative spirit.

Social services coordinator Dorothy Johnson-Laird has seen the fruits of VOLS’ efforts during her decade-plus time at Hudson Guild:

“The stereotype for lawyers is tough, abrasive, abrupt — but every VOLS lawyer I’ve worked with has been very caring. They come in every month, filling a huge gap to serve people in their homes, in the hospital. I know I can reach out to VOLS at any time, with any legal question, and I will get a very considered, careful response. VOLS prepares people to do this work with diverse populations — people who may feel invisible, alienated, oppressed — who are handled with care and their questions taken seriously. This makes a huge difference. The impact is beyond my understanding.”

VOLS’ capacity to work with community organizations to target the justice gaps in New York City, and at the same time creating projects that are suitable for pro bono representation, is at the core of our approach.

Harlene Katzman, Pro Bono Counsel at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, emphasizes the value of this matching process:

“Attorneys volunteer to do pro bono work for different reasons. But the work is always very meaningful when it focuses on filling gaps in the field. Creating that alignment has been and continues to be VOLS’ strong suit.”

VOLS method of identifying and screening clients, and training and mentoring attorneys, is essential to firms’ ability to take on their cases. We provide training, expertise and mentorship. We review and provide expertise in unfamiliar legal areas. An example — VOLS was among the first in New York to create legal clinics in large public high schools, recognizing that success in schools is impacted by what is going on in the home, which often includes housing and immigration legal issues.

Sociétè Génerale Managing Director and Senior Counsel Patricia Corley introduced the idea of pro bono service to Sociétè Génerale about three years ago, partnering with VOLS and Debevoise & Plimpton to create the VOLS School-Based Project. Since then, SocGen associates have participated in monthly clinics at the KIPP Academy middle School in the South Bronx and elsewhere. At KIPP, parents bring their issues to the clinic — immigration concerns, including DACA renewals, housing, government benefits, and family matters.

Today, pro bono service has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Most major law firms have a pro bono counsel, and in-house legal departments have pro bono committees. Legal Service organizations have pro bono managers who provide the continuity of collaboration.

Every low-income New Yorker facing an essential of life legal issue should have a lawyer standing by their side. Pro bono partnerships get us closer to reaching that goal.

As we celebrate Law Day 2019, I invite you to get involved with Volunteers of Legal Service to help ensure that all New Yorkers can secure access to justice:

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Public Law 87–20

Law Day USA, which was first proclaimed by President Eisenhower in 1958, was later codified into law in 1961, to be celebrated by the American people every May 1 “in appreciation of our liberties” and “in rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law.”

Marcia Levy

Written by

Executive Director, Volunteers of Legal Service (; former pro bono counsel, federal defender, prisoner rights lawyer, professor.

Marcia Levy

Written by

Executive Director, Volunteers of Legal Service (; former pro bono counsel, federal defender, prisoner rights lawyer, professor.

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