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Commentary & Opinion

Hank Greenberg: Busy Times Ahead

When the clock struck eight on the night of Sunday, March 22, our economy was put on “pause.”  In order to try to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus Governor Andrew Cuomo had no choice but to issue an executive order putting most of the state on lockdown.

Thankfully, the extraordinary societal sacrifice is proving successful.  New Yorkers are flattening the infection curve. The Governor has announced a comprehensive plan to reopen the economy.  

The time is now to plan for what awaits us when we can safely return to our workplaces.  The law is just one of many areas where we can expect profound repercussions from COVID-19.

It does not require a crystal ball to know that when the crisis passes there will be a surge of pent-up cases and legal actions resulting from the pandemic.  Many of these legal disputes are now barred from going forward by the Governor’s emergency directives and the courts not accepting most new civil cases.    

As the state reopens, however, many people, especially the poor, will require the assistance of lawyers to address a multitude of legal needs.  This includes:

  • Tenants with housing issues;
  • Helping people navigate debt obligations; and
  • Assisting small business get back on their feet.

With more than 1.4 million New Yorkers filing for unemployment in recent weeks and the full extent of the economic calamity wrought by the virus revealing itself, many will require legal representation, but won’t be able to afford it.
To that end, the New York State Bar Association has partnered with the State court system to launch an online matching service through which volunteer attorneys will be paired with Empire State residents who need help securing unemployment benefits after their claims have been denied.

Through an innovative new website, New Yorkers can sign up to receive assistance — free of charge — from lawyers who will help them navigate the appeals process.

Prior to the pandemic, New York’s network of legal aid societies and public defense attorneys was already strained. Volunteer attorneys are stepping forward to ensure that everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, can obtain representation at a time when the demand for legal services is expected to swell.

Attorneys have a professional obligation to use a portion of their time to provide legal assistance to those who cannot afford to pay.  The legal community has a long and proud history of fulfilling that obligation when the need is greatest, inspired by the bedrock principle of equal justice under law. 

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, more than 4,000 individuals and families who were impacted by the disaster were represented by volunteer lawyers. These attorneys did everything from assisting with financial and estate matters to securing victims’ compensation fund benefits for survivors.

In January 2017, when the federal government issued an order banning immediate entry into the U.S. by people from several predominantly Muslim countries, thousands of attorneys flocked to airports — including in New York City — to provide free counsel to those who were detained.

Through those efforts and countless others, lawyers step up when their communities need them most. 

President John F. Kennedy was fond of saying: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”  Society has conferred on the legal profession the privilege of defending and upholding the rule of law, the foundation of our society.  In response to COVID-19, lawyers, in ever growing numbers, are volunteering their time and expertise to make justice equally available to all.

For information about the State Bar Association’s  help for jobless New Yorkers who are denied unemployment benefits, go to: https://nysba.org/unemployment-insurance-relief/. Attorneys who want to volunteer, go to: https://nysba.org/covidvolunteer/.

Henry ‘Hank’ Greenberg is president of the New York State Bar Association and is former general counsel for the state Department of Health.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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