Proskauer’s 35-year pro bono representation of a death row inmate, J.B. Parker, came to a successful conclusion last week when the 19th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole following the State of Florida’s decision to stop pursuing the death penalty. 

Proskauer gathered for a firmwide virtual celebration, our 13th Annual Golden Gavel Awards ceremony on February 3, to honor those lawyers and staff members who went far above and beyond to contribute to the Firm’s pro bono, corporate social responsibility, and diversity & inclusion initiatives this year. This past year has been one of immense adversity and challenges. We thank and celebrate the following colleagues who rose to the occasion and made a difference for their communities.

Every year, a staggering number of bright minds do not attend college as a result of their family’s financial circumstances.  Minds Matter confronts this issue head on by offering a comprehensive and highly successful three-year program that empowers young people from low-income families to achieve college readiness and success.

With 13 chapters and approximately 1,900 volunteers nationwide, Minds Matter provides students with a variety of resources, including, among other things, individualized mentor support, ACT prep, writing instruction, access to experts on college admission and financial aid, and summer enrichment programs.  The impact Minds Matter has had on their students, all of whom have a family income of less than $25,000, is astounding: since 1991, when the organization was formed, 100% of their graduates have gained admission to a four-year college or university.

There are more than one million students enrolled in New York City public schools, making it the largest school system in the United States. Yet each student enrolled is unique and enters school each day with varying needs. Thus, there is a general consensus that providing targeted and individualized support to students is crucial to their academic success. Furthermore, implementing this support early in their education can impact students during critical stages in their development and benefit their academic performance for years to come.

Since 2015, I have served on the junior board for Read Ahead, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that New York City elementary school students have the skills they need for academic and life-long success. Read Ahead’s program is centered on one-on-one lunchtime reading-based mentoring sessions between students and volunteer mentors. Students are recommended by their teachers or school staff to participate in the program because they are reading below grade level, English Language Learners, or in need of social or emotional support to boost their self-confidence, their classroom performance, or their interest in reading.

In the United States, people of limited means suffer a tremendous unmet need for legal services in civil proceedings. Why does the United States fall so far behind in providing that service in comparison with other western democracies?

Background on the Right to Counsel

In 1963, the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Sixth Amendment decision requiring that states provide legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants. No such right to counsel, however, has been established in civil proceedings despite the fact that for many low-income individuals, the outcome of certain civil legal proceedings can have an impact as significant, lasting, and life-altering as some criminal cases.

In the absence of a federally recognized right to counsel in civil matters, state and local authorities have been primarily responsible for protecting the rights of low-income individuals in civil proceedings where they see fit.  As a result, the provision of free legal services differs greatly from state to state, and even within a given state.

A 2017 study demonstrated that 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem that year, including health care, housing conditions, veterans’ benefits, disability access, and domestic violence matters. In 86% of those civil legal problems, low-income Americans “received inadequate or no legal help.” In addition, in over three-fourths of all civil trials in the United States, at least one litigant does not have legal representation.

On a daily basis we are inundated with news and information from all over the world. My morning paper, evening news, and daily smartphone alerts are primarily focused on the United States’ political climate, natural disasters, violence, and other harrowing stories of people in need. Our newsfeed can seem to create a barrier between us and those we could help. I often feel it seems that those most in need are furthest from our reach. Yet it is important to remember how much work there is to be done right outside our own doors.

Prior to joining the Corporate Social Responsibility team at Proskauer this spring, I spent three years working in fundraising and development at Citymeals on Wheels. While the projects I worked on varied, I always took pride in knowing that my work supported Citymeals’ mission of providing nutritious meals to homebound seniors in need. People are often surprised by the scale of Citymeals’ work. The organization delivers to more than 18,000 elderly New Yorkers, resulting in over 2 million meals every year. And while these numbers are truly staggering, Citymeals’ recipients only account for a small percentage of New Yorkers who face the growing struggles of food insecurity.