New York State senators Ruth Hassell-Thompson and John Sampson held a joint hearing on December 9 at the NYU School of Law. The subject of the hearing was the financial crisis facing the New York State Interest on Lawyer Account Fund (IOLA), which the state legislature created in 1983 to provide grants to nonprofit organizations across the state that offer civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers. IOLA is the largest single provider statewide of funds to such organizations.

Welcoming participants and attendees, Dean Richard Revesz highlighted NYU Law’s ongoing investment in providing legal services to individuals unable to afford representation, with the Law School’s commitment to that cause signified by the work of clinics and by financial endeavors such as the PILC Summer Funding Program and the Loan Repayment Assistance Program. “Nevertheless, our efforts here at NYU are dwarfed by the size of the problem,” Revesz said. “For better or for worse, few people can successfully engage in the legal system without the services of an attorney. Until poverty is eradicated, we need a paid, professional workforce to represent those who cannot afford counsel. Such a workforce requires a sustained financial commitment from all levels of government.”

Since the IOLA grants come from the interest generated when attorneys place clients’ money in IOLA escrow accounts, the current economic crisis has dealt a significant blow to the fund. In 2008 IOLA had almost $32 million; this year, the available funds have dropped some 75 percent. Panelists at the hearing discussed the IOLA crisis from the perspectives of the judiciary, legal services providers, academia, communities, and corporations.

Among the participants were a number of NYU Law alumni, including Steven Banks ’81, executive director of the Legal Aid Society; Christopher Lamb ’86, executive director of MFY Legal Services; Susan Lerner ’78, executive director of Common Cause New York; Supervising Judge Jeffrey Oing ’89 of New York City Civil Court; Michael Rothenberg ’91, executive director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest; Andrew Scherer ’78, executive director of Legal Services NYC; and David Udell ’82, director of the Justice Program at NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Additional IOLA hearings are scheduled over the next month in Buffalo and Albany.

Posted on December 9, 2009