Andrew Scherer '78
Named executive director and president of Legal Services for New York City (LSNY) in 2001, Andrew Scherer leads the nation’s largest provider of free civil legal services for the poor. LSNY—which is celebrating its 40 th anniversary this year—was created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Today, with offices in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs of New York City , LSNY assists more than 25,000 clients a year. LSNY’s 210 attorneys and paralegals work with scores of pro bono attorneys to provide free legal help that addresses the most fundamental of human needs: home, family, income, health, education, employment and community.
Under Scherer’s stewardship, LSNY is expanding into new areas of law that affect the poor, employing innovative approaches and cutting-edge technology, broadening its use of pro bono attorneys, and increasing government, foundation and private funding. LSNY has new projects to assist low wage workers, to improve access to legal and other services for people with limited proficiency in English, and to provide multidisciplinary help on-site at community organizations throughout NYC. LSNY is also now a leading advocate for expanding unfettered access to justice for all, and, represented by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, is challenging congressional restrictions on federally funded legal services programs.
Scherer has worked for LSNY since graduating from the NYU School of Law in 1978. He first worked in the South Bronx , representing low-income tenants who faced eviction, arson and abandonment. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, he was LSNY’s Housing Coordinator and brought major litigation to secure due process rights for tenants in tax-foreclosed city-owned housing, to prevent displacement of low-income tenants through escalating rents and gentrification and to expand the right to counsel. From 1996 to 2001, Mr. Scherer directed LSNY’s Legal Support Unit, which, under his leadership, became New York ’s premier continuing legal education program in poverty law.
Scherer is a national leader in the field of civil legal services to the poor and a renowned expert in landlord-tenant law. He is the author of the treatise, Residential Landlord-Tenant Law in New York, with views from the bench by the Honorable Fern Fisher (West Group, pub., 11 th edition, 2006). He has also authored numerous articles, reports and contributions for legal and other publications. From 1986 to 1990, he taught Housing Law and Policy in the Root-Tilden Program at the NYU School of Law. He has also taught at CUNY Law School and Bennington College and is currently teaching planning law at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
Active in housing and community groups, bar associations and other civic organizations, Scherer is currently the chair of the Executive Committee of the New York City Bar Association and the vice chair of the New York State Equal Justice Commission. He lectures regularly on housing law, legal services and other topics at academic, community and bar events, and is a frequent consultant on housing and legal services matters to the media.
Mr. Scherer received his JD from NYU Law School in 1978 and his BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1972.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Andrew Scherer '78
What is your area of specialization and how did you come to work in this area?
I am a poverty lawyer. I knew I wanted to work in legal services when I got out of law school. I went to law school because I wanted to be in a position to do something about what I saw (and continue to see) as a fundamental problem in the US—the vast inequity in income and resources and access to the legal system that results in poor schools, inadequate health care, broken families and unsafe communities.
My first job out of law school was in the South Bronx in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Bronx was literally burning down. I defended low-income tenants from eviction and helped building-wide tenant associations and citywide advocacy groups fight for decent affordable housing. I became an expert in housing law, which led to teaching, including a seminar in the Root Tilden program in the late 1980’s, and writing, including law review articles and my treatise on landlord-tenant law.
Now, as executive director of Legal Services for New York City, my focus is on advocating for increased support for meaningful access to the civil justice system for low-income people, and on making LSNY work as well as it possibly can in all of the areas of our practice.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
In my view, the work done by the attorneys in legal services offices is some of the most important work done in the legal profession. When our work is done well, lives change for the better: people are able to stay in their homes, parents get to keep custody of their kids, people get the public benefits they are entitled to and low-income communities improve. My current job is all about building LSNY into the most effective possible vehicle for providing legal help and furthering access to justice for low-income people. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to earn my living doing this work.
What are some of the most important recent developments in your field?
Key current issues affecting civil legal services for low income people include:
- An emerging consensus in the organized bar that there needs to be recognition of a right to counsel for low-income litigants in civil matters, as well as in criminal matters. In August of 2006, the American Bar Association passed a resolution calling for “state, territorial and federal jurisdictions to provide counsel as a matter of right at public expense to low-income persons in those categories of adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody.”
- Renewed interest and public discussion about eliminating poverty as evidenced by Mayor Bloomberg’s recent Commission on Economic Opportunity. The “welfare reform” discussions of a decade or so ago have succeeded in moving many people off of welfare but not out of poverty and public discussion and serious policy initiatives to address poverty are long overdue.
- Major changes in the demographic profile of poor people in the U.S., and an expanding population with limited English proficiency that require those of us who work in low-income communities to develop new strategies for outreach and raise important issues of equitable access to the courts, medical care and other social and human services.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
I am involved in very little activity these days that could be characterized as practicing law. The major themes of my work revolve around assuring and supporting the highest quality and most effective advocacy for clients, securing new financial and pro bono resources for the program and making sure we have the right systems in place. Day-to-day tasks include working with LSNY’s Board of Directors, dealing with financial and personnel matters, fundraising, maintaining relations with legislators, government agencies and foundations, program development and review, organizational planning and administration. I stay (at least somewhat) in touch with the substance of our work and the issues facing our clients by regularly discussing and reviewing the legal work of our offices and by updating my book, Residential Landlord-Tenant Law in New York.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Keeping a large non-profit afloat financially and helping it grow is a major challenge. Costs rise each year, as does the need for legal assistance in poor communities. Yet government funding has been stagnant and in some areas of service, decreasing. To enable LSNY to thrive and grow and address more of the overwhelming need for legal services, we are starting a long overdue major effort to raise private funds from law firms, corporations and individuals. I am excited about our first-ever major fundraising gala—Jazz for Justice—which will be held at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 28, 2007, and about our initiative to seek major donations in support of our work from New York City’s leading law firms.
Another ongoing challenge in running a legal services program is the task of defending the program against political and economic threats from those who do not believe that low-income people should have a right to high-quality, unfettered legal assistance. For example, LSNY (represented by the Brennan Center) has for years been a plaintiff in a legal challenge to congressional restrictions on certain kinds of advocacy by legal services programs that, like us, receive federal funds. We have also had to struggle for state funding (at a level that still places New York among the lowest in the nation) against regular vetoes by the Governor. The changed political landscape after the 2006 elections should help with these types of issues.
Who are your role models in the legal profession?
I have known and been inspired by, and work every day with, many talented people who use law as an effective tool of social change. These three stand out:
- At NYU Law School in the mid-1970’s, my most memorable class was Racism and American Law with Professor Haywood Burns. Haywood later hired me to teach housing law at CUNY Law School where he was then Dean. His combination of academic and activist, his fierce commitment to social justice and his warm smile and support for those around him made him awesome.
- When I was a young housing attorney, I would regularly seek the advice of Florence Roisman, who then worked at the National Housing Law Project, a legal services back-up center in Washington, D.C. She is now a professor at Indiana University School of Law. Florence taught me that if you know in your gut that something is unfair, you will be able to find a legal theory.
- In the mid-1960s, when the federal government began funding free civil legal services in poor communities as part of the War on Poverty, Earl Johnson (now a justice of the California Court of Appeal) was appointed to run the program. Justice Johnson soon formed the view that the United States needed a right to counsel in civil legal matters like it had in criminal proceedings after Gideon v Wainwright (and as there is now in the European Community, Canada and South Africa). Justice Johnson’s writings and advocacy on this simple, but important, principle have greatly influenced my thinking and work.
What was your first job out of law school and what was the most important thing you learned while there?
When I graduated in 1978 and was hired to work as a housing attorney in the South Bronx, the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s were fading, but not quite over. The work was great, my colleagues were passionate about justice and community, but the workplace was chaotic and poorly managed. We had a long and bitter strike about a year after I started, and there was regular turnover in the managerial staff. Much of this was very exciting, but as a young attorney handling an active caseload, I was forced to sink or swim without adequate support or supervision. I searched out people who I felt I could learn from. And I learned to trust and rely on my own judgment about how to decide who to listen to, and ultimately about how to best serve my clients.
How do you balance work and life?
Actively raising kids gave me an important counterbalance to work. My kids are pretty much out of the nest now and work is capturing more of my waking hours. I believe in vacations, enjoy traveling (especially outside the U.S.), try to spend as much time as possible outdoors and lately have taken to building rock walls.
If you could choose another profession to be in, what would it be?
When I first became a legal services lawyer, I sometimes thought, “this is rewarding and fun and interesting and engaging for now, but by the time I turn 40, I’ll do something really important, like make movies.” I love film and I saw it as the ideal vehicle for commenting on and shaping perceptions of the world. However, I never did a thing about this fantasy, and I turned 40 fifteen years ago. Luckily, I still find my work rewarding, fun, interesting and engaging.
Did the more lucrative private sector ever hold any appeal for you?
Not really. My parents were social workers who believed that work should be about personal fulfillment and not about money. I am part of a generation in which, for a time, at least, many believed that the material values of society needed serious overhaul. I went to law school because law seemed like a way to make a decent living while having a positive impact on things I found troubling about the world. My student loans when I graduated, unlike those now, were manageable. My wife is a highly-regarded, public-interest oriented immigration lawyer with a small private practice and between us we earn enough income to have a comfortable and satisfying life.
What advice would you give to current students?
Be an opportunist in the most positive sense of the word. Work (and life) will present opportunities. Be ready to pounce. I didn’t have any kind of career master plan when I started working in legal services in 1978. I thought of the job as a great first law job and had no idea what would come next. But over the years, I have responded to, or in some cases created, opportunities to move on to the next challenge in ways that invariably built on what I had done before—increasingly sophisticated litigation, increased responsibility, teaching and writing. Some people approach their careers with a linear view about what has to happen next and by when. I never have. Maybe that explains why I have stayed with the same organization for 28 years.