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Court Square non-profit offers low-cost legal services

CUNY School of Law

Feb. 23, 2017 By Hannah Wulkan

A year-old experimental program based out of a local law school is looking to create more affordable legal services in an effort to bridge the “Justice Gap.”

The Court Square Law Project, working out of space within the CUNY Law School at 2 Court Square, aims to provide legal services to those who do not make enough to hire an attorney, but make too much to qualify for free services. On average, lawyers in New York charge upwards of $300 per hour for their services, but the CSLP tries to charge about a third of the market price, typically around $100 per hour.

The Project launched in early 2016, after a task force within the New York Bar Association determined that there were too many qualified law school graduates and too few jobs.

The task force pointed out that most private practice attorneys could not afford to charge less than about $300 per hour, which is to expensive for most to afford.  Meanwhile, Legal Aid and similar non-profit firms are free for those who earn very little.

This creates what is referred to as a “justice gap,” leaving many New Yorkers to represent themselves in court, and often losing out because they do not have the knowledge and skills to represent themselves well.

The start up costs were funded by donations from 19 major law firms throughout the city, and the Project was given space within CUNY Law School to set up its offices. The program was launched in collaboration with the New York Bar Association.

“Many New Yorkers make so little that they actually qualify for free services. But many more make a living that cuts them off from access to free legal services,” explained coordinating attorney Naree Sinthusek. “We were created to help those people, and nothing like us exists anywhere else in the country.”

In the last year, the Court Square Law Project has helped about 80 clients with cases ranging from divorce proceedings, civil issues, evictions, estate planning, and more, Sinthusek explained.

“We initially tried to say that we represent moderate income New Yorkers, but that means about 99 percent of people,” Sinthusek explained, pointing out that most people have some kind of debt or are supporting a family or simply can not afford to pay upwards of $300 per hour for simple legal help, even if they make a good salary.

Sinthusek explained that the goal of the project is to spread affordable legal services throughout the country over time.

The project has 11 fellows, all recent law school graduates, working for it at any given time. Each class of fellows is expected to stay on for one or two years, before moving on to another law practice.

Sinthusek said that she hopes to see former fellows setting up their own practices throughout the city, while maintaining the philosophy of keeping their services affordable. The Law Project hopes to foster this mission by helping the recent fellows obtain free or discounted software and resources to help them get started.

She added that she hopes to see former fellows come back and mentor future generations of fellows as well.

“This is all still very new, and is very much an experiment to see if one can charge less and still make a living,” Sinthusek said. “We are seeing what works and what does not and constantly adjusting.”

In addition to providing discounted services and fostering a new generation of lawyers, Sinthusek said that the CSLP aims to offer as much free information on its website as possible as well, in an effort to help those who might need advice.

The site already has links to various legal advice sites and journals, and Sinthusek said that the group is working to develop info graphics and checklists to help guide people through the legal process, such as a checklist for what to do if buying a house or having a child.

“We want everyone to go forward in life, and treat the legal profession as they would treat physical health,” Sinthusek said. “You go to the doctor for check ups, you go to the mechanic so your car doesn’t explode, and you go to a law firm to make sure you are legally protected.”

For more information on the Court Square Law Project visit http://www.courtsquarelaw.org.

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