The newest addition to the array of funding opportunities available at NYU Law gives one student every year the opportunity to spend his or her summer at the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a nonprofit corporation in Washington, D.C., that is the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income individuals. The Helaine Barnett Summer Fellowship Program was named by LSC for its then-president, an NYU Law alumna who has dedicated her entire 43-year career to ensuring legal services for the poor.

Fellows will learn about the different ways LSC provides oversight to legal services programs through on-site program visits and other activities that ensure the programs provide high-quality legal services in compliance with LSC regulations and congressional requirements. The fellow will also gain insight into the congressional relations and public affairs activities of LSC, including the federal funding process. During the 10-week paid internship, which is privately funded, summer fellows will rotate through LSC’s offices dedicated to program performance, compliance and enforcement, and government relations and public affairs.

“I picked NYU because of its major focus on public interest law,” said Barnett ’64, “and, of course, because it also provided me the training to pursue a career in public interest.” The first summer fellow at LSC will be Renee Hatcher ’11, whose experience includes work in a Congressional office; in NYU Law’s Racial Justice Clinic; and at the International Network for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

By the time Barnett retired at the end of 2009 as the longest-serving president in the organization’s 35-year history, LSC was funding 136 legal aid programs with more than 900 offices in every county in the U.S. The corporation’s $420 million budget for the current fiscal year (reflecting a $90 million budget increase during Barnett’s tenure) supports the work of almost 9,000 staff, of which 4,100 were attorneys, as they work on nearly one million cases across the country.

In 2005, at Barnett’s initiative, LSC released a major report, “Documenting the Justice Gap in America,” which provided statistical evidence of the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged Americans. “The Justice Gap” soon entered the Capitol Hill lexicon and helped Barnett to shape the dialogue with Congress in the course of eight separate appearances, resulting in increased federal funding for civil legal services. “We have been fortunate to enjoy bipartisan support in the Congress for the increases that we’ve gotten,” said Barnett, although she noted that the ailing economy has made a huge dent in state and local and IOLTA funding, even as the ranks of those eligible for services (currently 54 million people) have swelled.

“The chasm is growing between the need for civil legal assistance and the resources available to meet that need,” she said. “We need everybody working together— the courts, the private bar, the law schools, the business community, the religious community, and state, local, and private funders—in an effort to find ways to close the justice gap.”

During her LSC presidency, Barnett focused on several key components as she guided the organization. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the LSC worked to improve its capacities for disaster assistance. “I came to Katrina with the experience of dealing with 9/11 in New York City,” said Barnett, “and recognized that the provision of civil legal services is a vital component of recovery efforts.”

As head of the civil division of the Legal Aid Society, where she spent 37 years, Barnett had mobilized the organization’s 9/11 Disaster Assistance Response Plan, which sent attorneys to Lower Manhattan for 10 months to help 8,500 New Yorkers affected by the terrorist attacks. Barnett’s other major accomplishments at the Legal Aid Society included creating the Homeless Family Rights Project, and bringing the New York Court of Appeals’ first civil contempt motion in the course of representing elderly nursing home residents.

As LSC president, Barnett also emphasized responding to emerging issues such as home foreclosures, enhancing operational efficiency, and engendering increased public support of the LSC mission. First on Barnett’s list, however, was a commitment to not only access to justice, but to ensuring that those eligible for LSC assistance received high-quality civil legal services.

LSC has devoted resources in recent years to leadership development and mentoring. The new summer fellowship is a reflection of that commitment as part of an ongoing effort to groom a new generation of attorneys dedicated to civil legal services. Barnett hopes that the fellowship experience will significantly enhance the fellow’s professional development.

“It means a lot to a young lawyer to have a mentor help guide them and encourage them in the pursuit of their goals,” said Barnett, who cited the late Robert McKay, former dean of NYU Law and one-time president of the Legal Aid Society, as a “quintessential public servant” who taught Barnett, mentored her throughout her career, and encouraged her to apply to the Legal Aid Society upon graduating. Even post-retirement from LSC, Barnett continues to pursue her public interest aims. “Whatever I do,” she said, “I want to stay involved in my commitment to equal access to justice in one way or another, and encourage young law school graduates to pursue that ideal.”

Posted on March 4, 2010