The first thing that Justine Olderman ’98 noticed about the Bronx Defenders, she says, was its open interior architecture. When Olderman interviewed there in 2000, after finishing a federal clerkship in the Southern District of New York, the public interest law organization was then housed in an older building that had once been an ice factory. It was not simply the loft-like ceilings that caught Olderman’s eye, however, but the children’s toys and the comfortable couches and chairs in the wide-open reception area.
“I was struck by how welcoming it was…. There was no psychological divider between the communities the organization was serving and the people who worked for the institution,” Olderman says. “And everything I discovered about The Bronx Defenders was consistent with that messaging to clients—we are here for you and with you.”
The client-centric, holistic approach appealed to Olderman. She signed on as a staff attorney, then one of fewer than 30 staff members at The Bronx Defenders, which was focused entirely on criminal defense. This January, Olderman became executive director, heading an organization that now has more than 300 employees and represents nearly 30,000 New Yorkers per year in practice areas that include family defense, civil action, immigration, social work, policy reform, impact litigation, and community organizing as well as criminal law.
The expanded focus, Olderman says, enables the organization to respond more fully to the needs of the people that it serves. “Justice involvement leads to more justice involvement,” Olderman says. “What we have really done is create a model where we go wherever the clients go in the justice system, and we can address whatever needs they might have.”
Prior to her current role, Olderman served as head of the criminal defense practice, then as managing director, overseeing the organization’s programming and day-to-day operations. As executive director, Olderman says she hopes to continue The Bronx Defenders’ tradition as of being “a laboratory for public defense, one that is constantly pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a public defender.” One goal is to do more preventative work with clients, reaching people before they come into contact with the justice system.
“That means doing work with pregnant women, trying to prevent them from having a child custody case brought against them when the baby is born. It’s trying to prevent evictions from happening, not just representing people already in eviction proceedings,” Olderman says. “We also want to expand the work that we do when clients’ justice involvement ends, helping them to pick up the pieces of what was taken from them, helping recover from the harm that has been caused.”
Olderman is also working to create opportunities for clients to tell the stories of their experiences in the justice system. In May, the Bronx Defenders is partnering with the Moth Radio Hour, a live, weekly series featuring true stories told on stage without scripts or notes, to host a workshop to train clients to become storytellers. “We want to make sure that people are given the opportunity to tell their own stories and to be agents of change for themselves, their families, and their communities,” Olderman says.
Her colleagues say that Olderman has an ideal temperament for her new job. “She always had a very kind, empathetic spirit,” says Lisa Hoyes ’99, assistant dean for public service. In addition to having worked with Olderman at The Bronx Defenders and graduating a year behind her from NYU Law, Hoyes has known Olderman since they were in fourth grade. She recalls that when they were younger, Olderman was extremely artistic, channeling her creativity into painting. Now, Hoyes says, she brings that same energy to her work at The Bronx Defenders: “She’s a brilliant, creative lawyer who is always looking to innovate.”
Olderman credits NYU Law’s clinical program with building her skills as a public interest lawyer, citing Vice Dean Randy Hertz,Professor of Clinical Law Holly Maguigan, as well as Steve Zeidman as three of the Law School figures who inspired her. Her most significant mentor, however, has been the Bronx Defenders’ founder, Robin Steinberg ’82, who stepped down as executive director in January.
“Other than my family, I don’t think there is anyone who has more influence on me as a human being, as an advocate, and as a leader than Robin has,” Olderman says. It was from Steinberg, Olderman says, that she learned the fundamental principle that drives her work: “Always be guided by the answer to the question: what is best for clients?”
For her part, Steinberg says there is no one more fitting than Olderman to take on the task of leading The Bronx Defenders. “She’s driven by her life in this work, and by her belief in the clients we defend, and in the Bronx community,” Steinberg says. “And I think that’s going to take The Bronx Defenders to the next level and well into the future.”
Posted April 18, 2018