Truth, Justice, and the CNY Way

Over the past decade, The Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County has grown by more than tenfold, providing an ever-increasing range of legal services to disenfranchised residents.

            It is widely known that in criminal cases, an attorney will be provided for you if you cannot afford one. But what happens with civil cases? Many people do not realize that the protections offered by the Sixth Amendment only cover criminal proceedings, except in certain circumstances. People who are facing eviction, custody issues, or any one of a long list of potential civil cases can easily find themselves in great peril if they are not able to afford an attorney. This is where the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County steps in.

The Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County provides free legal services for civil cases, often representing marginalized populations across CNY.

            The Volunteer Lawyers Project, also known as the ONVLP, began in 1991 as an affiliate of the Onondaga County Bar Association, but eventually separated and became an independent entity in 2012. They are home to nine full-time attorneys, four part-time attorneys, and have a panel of over 500 volunteer attorneys who help out with various cases. When asked about their typical client, Executive Director Sally Fisher Curran, Esq. explained that the common thread is usually trauma. “They are facing systemic oppression in different ways, whether it’s racism, sexism, a disability… Living in poverty exacerbates those things.” These cases often include undocumented immigrants, people facing various forms of discrimination, family court cases, and homelessness advocacy, to name a few. Recently, they launched a program specializing in LGBTQ+ issues which has already processed more than 120 name-change cases for transgender clients over the last six months.

            While the Volunteer Lawyers Project has grown into a high achieving and active nonprofit, they did not start out that way. In the beginning the staff was smaller and extremely overworked. Roles were not clearly defined, and this was affecting their budget. There was no time to apply for the grants they desperately needed, and it was unclear who was in charge of those applications in the first place. Worst of all, the steps needed to fix these issues were not clear. “We were in a ‘we didn’t know what we didn’t know’ situation,” said Curran. All of this led to the realization that they needed a chance to reevaluate and restructure their organization.

            In 2017, they were invited to participate in ADVANS – a capacity building initiative offered by The Gifford Foundation. The ADVANS program uses specific language and concept models to help nonprofits self-evaluate and better visualize their development. Participating organizations must put in a large amount of time over the course of the two year program, but receive the support of a dedicated consultant as well as financial resources provided by Gifford. Since the ADVANS program was launched in 2007, more than 34 organizations have participated and nearly $4 million has been invested into nonprofits throughout Central New York.

            The choice to put themselves through the ADVANS process paid off very quickly for the Volunteer Lawyers Project. “ADVANS was a catalyst for us to open up so many different possibilities, it really did help us to grow tremendously,” said Volunteer Engagement and Development Manager Bethanie Hemingway. In the past, their organization had been very program heavy. By focusing entirely on providing services to their clients – internal organization had remained underdeveloped which had begun to stifle their ability to grow. “It gave us a leadership structure to be able to discuss what needed to change and create a concrete action plan for making that change,” said Sally Fisher Curran as she reflected on their recent graduation from the sixth ADVANS cohort, “I don’t want it to go away!”

            During their time in the program, the Volunteer Lawyer Project’s budget increased by $500,000 to a grand total of $1.3 million – ten times that of their original budget from 2012. Participating in ADVANS not only grew their capacity to apply for more grants, but also significantly expanded their ability to process cases more efficiently. By streamlining their operations, they could concentrate more on preventative work rather than dealing with crises only after they had arisen. “Both the number of cases has increased and also the depth of what we are able to do has increased,” says Curran. Right now, they are collaborating with the City of Syracuse on a project to help curb evictions. Through their work in that area, they have seen annual evictions drop by roughly 70% within the City.

The Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County graduated from ADVANS, the Gifford Foundation’s signature capacity building program, in 2019.

            Despite their high achievements over the past few years, the Volunteer Lawyers Project is poised to push their growth even further. They are expanding their immigration program and are already serving clients beyond Onondaga County – in some cases as far away as Plattsburgh, NY. Much of this work is dependent on the participation of their panel of volunteer lawyers, who generously give their time to assist the Volunteer Lawyers Project – something the rest of the full time staff are very appreciate of. “Making sure that we have the systems in place to support them to do the work is what it’s really about,” says Curran. Judging by the growth they have had over the past few years, these support structures are already paying off. It will be exciting to see what the new decade brings as the Volunteer Lawyers Project continues to provide high quality legal support to marginalized residents within Central New York.