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photo On Thursday afternoons Pat Castellan (Fordham Law ’77), former ExxonMobil tax attorney, makes his way to the Bronx County Courthouse. Mr. Castellan has been retired for four years now, but still finds himself making a regular trek past Yankee Stadium and through the magisterial columns that flank the Courthouse’s entrance. On these afternoons he steps back into the role of attorney and spends the next hours providing limited legal advice to local Bronx residents.

Mr. Castellan is one of a growing number of active former attorneys who elects to put his retirement to use through New York State’s Attorney Emeritus Program (AEP). The program, launched by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, aims to draw on a large, underutilized pool of senior attorneys. The goal is for Emeritus Attorneys to provide legal counsel for those who cannot afford it, and given that no more than 20%  of low-income New Yorkers receive civil legal representation, this work is hugely important. The Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Service in New York indicated in its November 2012 Report to the Chief Judge that 2.3 million New Yorkers navigated the civil courts unrepresented in matters dealing with “the most basic necessities.” As of 2010, attorneys 55 years or older and with ten or more years of experience can register as Attorneys Emeritus. After this status designation, Feerick Center staff help to match Emeritus Attorneys with one of many participating legal service providing organizations.

By the time Mr. Castellan arrives in the small room where he gives consultations, a sizeable queue already strings through the hallway outside. People have been here for hours already, waiting with their court summons to speak with an attorney. This is the Bronx Civil Legal Advice Resource Office (CLARO), a program that offers free legal counseling to low-income New Yorkers who are being sued by debt collectors.  Today, a man seeks advice on how to recoup his stolen identity. A woman believes that her summons was meant for another individual in her building, someone with the same name. Another woman didn’t receive her summons until long after the court date had already passed, and a young man tries to balance snowballing student debt.

Mr. Castellan, along with several other volunteer attorneys, meets individually with these clients to talk through their legal situation and help them plan a course of action. For the vast majority of visitors who are not familiar with legal terminology or how to navigate a complicated court system, this assistance is vital. “There are so many people being sued for non-payment, many times in a very non-ethical way,” Castellan explains, “[At CLARO] we help empower people to help themselves.”

Alongside Mr. Castellan, a small group of current law students assists with client intake. In addition to facilitating administrative details of CLARO, these students are often able to sit in with volunteer attorneys during consultations. In this way, student volunteers gain on the ground exposure to legal practice by observing senior attorneys at work. “Hopefully [volunteering with CLARO] creates an awareness of the need to assist these folks, which will continue on after graduation and entry into the legal community,” Castellan reflects. Whether or not the student volunteers go on to public interest practice, the environment at CLARO fosters constructive interfacing between senior attorneys and lawyers-to-be.

After a long and fulfilling career in corporate law, Mr. Castellan moved to New York City where he began volunteering with Bronx CLARO. This transition required that he adapt to a new legal environment, namely by learning to work effectively with a different client base in an area of law entirely new to him – consumer debt. For some, stepping out of the comfort of a niche practice may seem daunting, but Mr. Castellan describes the process as challenging yet navigable. “[At CLARO] you learn by doing; you get hit with the questions and then talk to the experts. You keep building on a knowledge base.”

While many Attorney Emeritus volunteers seek positions where they can offer up years of area-specific expertise, others such as Pat Castellan have used the opportunity to grow their legal knowledge. In either case, the hours clocked by a broadening group of Attorney Emeritus volunteers are incredibly valuable to the many New Yorkers who would otherwise traverse the legal system alone.

“Give it a try,” Mr. Castellan encourages, “You really do get to help people, and get some definite rewards from helping people out who are in troubled times.”

By: Katie McConnell
Vista Co-Director
Feerick Center for Social Justice
Fordham Law School