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Susan Griffith has been with the Family Court program since it got up and running in 2004. The 38-year-old Sedgwick resident has worked at Hiscock Legal Aid for nearly 17 years, and is now the supervising attorney for the Family Court program. “Our domestic violence program started in 1998,” says Griffith.

“We had a very large fed- eral grant that did not get

renewed.” Mary John is one of

three full-time attorneys in the Family Court program. One paralegal assists them in working with domestic violence cases. “It still doesn’t come any- where near to meeting the needs,”


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she notes. New York state, she explains, assigns an attorney in many family law cases. “If you are involved in a child support case, a custody case or an order of protection, you are

assigned an attorney,” she says. “When parents are accused by DSS {Department of Social Services} with abuse or neglect, we get involved.” When working with domestic violence cases,

lawyers end up serving as legal counsel, social workers and a shoulder to cry on for countless clients. They work closely with Vera House, Syracuse’s best-known social agency dealing with domestic violence. “We try to take a holistic approach,” says Griffith, “to get them everything they need, whether it’s help with a divorce, or sup- port issues, orders of protection.” A specialized court unit, the Integrated Domestic Violence Court, has been set up to keep needy clients from having to make multiple court appearances. “For our clients to miss work, that’s money out

of their pockets. To lose work for a chance to get an extra $25 per month in child support—they just can’t do it. We see a mix of men and women, all of them indigent. We see people for whom poverty is generational, and people who have held good jobs, but because of the economy now need help. Just the other day I received a call from an attorney looking for help.” In what would seem like a job ready made for

burnout, Hiscock lawyers manage to stick around for a long time. “We have a lot of young attorneys and a lot of people who have been here a long time,” notes Griffith. “We are very lucky to attract people who care. The work is hard, the people are needy, and the concerns are very basic. What keeps us going is the camaraderie. We have meetings every week to talk about cases, and talk about the frustration. It’s a great support system—it keeps the morale up. You have to want to be in this for the right reasons.” Yet even the most idealistic law school gradu-

ates might have a hard time making ends meet on a legal aid salary. Starting salaries are about $38,000 and attorneys who have spent decades at the firm might barely break six figures. Now, $38,000 may seem like a lot if you’re trying to make a living at many local jobs, but with law school debt averaging more than $100,000 per graduate, according to Forbes magazine, it can render altruism unaffordable. A New York state program recently put in place will help pay law school or college loans up to $3,400 per year for recent graduates.



Syracuse New Times March 31 - April 7, 2010

Syracuse New Times March 31 - April 7, 2010



patients deal with everything from outstanding debts to medical insurance payments to executing a final will and testament.

“It’s a tough call,” says Horn, “for an indebted

law school graduate to come here and earn less than, say, a starting teacher. But people come here because they are committed.” Amanda Cortese knows firsthand the sacrifices

required to be a lawyer for the poor. With more than $200,000 in law school loans to pay off, the 29-year-old attorney lives with her parents in Rome and commutes to Syracuse in order to make ends meet. She works for a program constantly in danger of losing its funding, but finds it satisfying to stay at Hiscock Legal Aid. “Do I want to give up what I really want to do and go out and make the money?” she asks. “It’s a struggle every day, but here I am working with people for whom these issues affect their daily lives.” The Legal Aid Society itself has faced tough

financial times over the years but none as daunting as right now. The $1.2 million in civil programs is constantly in jeopardy as government programs shrink. “We’re squeezed on both sides,” admits Horn.

"Government doesn’t have the money. The United Way and IOLA {Interest on Lawyers Accounts—a fund distributed by New York state} are squeezed. And in hard time private sources cut back.” Still the phone keeps on ringing. Last year the

number of civil cases handled rose by more than 20 percent, and Family Court cases jumped from 1,800 to more than 2,000. “None of the money is increasing, but the work is,” says John. “We could hire so many attorneys, but we just don’t have the money to do it.”


For more information, visit www.

The real heavy hitters: Mary John (facing

page) and Amanda Cortese work for Hiscock Legal Aid Society, a dedicated group of lawyers who aren’t in the profession to get rich; for them, it’s about helping people. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31
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