Hiscock Legal Aid Society

Justice For All

Photography by Mary Grace Johnson

This month, we talked with four members of the Hiscock Legal Aid Society, an organization that strives to provide high quality legal aid to individuals and families in need in the Central New York area.

Linda Gehron
President and CEO

SWM: Talk about the role Hiscock Legal Aid Society plays in our community.

Linda: The Hiscock Legal Aid Society has promoted the fundamental right of every person to equal justice under the law since it was established in 1943. We work to ensure no one in our community is denied justice due to lack of means.
We strive to provide high quality representation for our clients, while helping as many people as possible. Every year, we handle thousands of cases, including domestic violence, family court, foreclosure, immigration, landlord/tenant, matrimonial, unemployment and criminal and family appeals matters.
Every day, people come to HLAS for assistance that no other agency in CNY can provide.
Every day, we work hard to help them all.

SWM: How and why did you get involved with HLAS?

Linda: Ever since I began my small law practice as an assigned counsel lawyer and law guardian representing low-income adults and children, I was a great admirer of HLAS and its mission. Once my children had grown and graduated from college, I jumped at the chance to join HLAS’ zealous and collaborative team of lawyers.
There is nothing better than working with this group of lawyers and staff, who are all dedicated to ensuring clients’ access to justice and constantly learning and sharing their knowledge to improve the profession and our system of justice.

SWM: You’ve been with HLAS since 2012. How have you seen the organization grow and evolve?

Linda: HLAS’ size and scope of its services have grown. We now have expanded foreclosure prevention and immigration projects, in addition to our other programs.
HLAS has become broadly recognized locally and statewide for its civil, family court, appeals and parole work, and contributions to the legal community.
Our appeals program attorneys have had many successes in the New York State Court of Appeals and provide regional support to other attorneys through its 4th Department Appeals Blog by Piotr Banasiak and CLE presentations by Phillip Rothschild.
Our civil program attorneys have significantly increased their community outreach and have provided CLE presentations in foreclosure and domestic violence.
Family court program attorneys have presented CLEs for the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, the New York State Bar Association, the New York State Defenders Association and the Onondaga County Bar Association.
Our parole program gets involved in our clients’ cases earlier in the process, leading to better outcomes.

SWM: It’s been about a year since you began as president and CEO. What’s been the most challenging aspect of the job?

Linda: There are thousands of low-income people in our community whose essential legal needs still go unmet every year. Our challenge is to serve as many of these clients as possible, while still providing the high quality representation that our clients need and deserve, and taking the best care of our talented, dedicated and hard-working staff. Through reorganization and the use of technology, we continue to look for ways to be more efficient so that we can serve more people.

SWM: Any other information you’d like to include?

Linda: Serving as president and CEO is the highest honor I can imagine for any attorney who does the kind of work we do. I was thrilled when the board of directors offered me this position and I am thoroughly enjoying this hard work.
There is an awesome amount of responsibility that comes with this job, given the tremendous need in our community and the relatively limited resources to meet those needs. Too many of the vulnerable among us still face the loss of their liberty or the bare necessities of life without the full due process of the law.
It is humbling to realize that essential rights of people in our community are often at stake and in our hands. Throughout our long history, HLAS has served as a symbol of hope to those in need. Throughout our long history, it has been HLAS’ leaders, attorneys and staff who have turned that symbol into real action. For so many unprotected people, we have been the force that stands between them and catastrophic losses from which they may never recover. We strive to  continue to serve them, stronger than ever.

Virginia Hoveman
Board chairperson

SWM: How did you get involved with HLAS?

Virginia: I was recruited by Susan Horn, who I know well. Susan and I had served together on other NFP service boards. Because there is a long tradition at Bousquet Holstein supporting board participation in legal services organizations and other community NFPs, it was a natural fit.

SWM: What is your responsibility as chair?

Virginia: As board chair, my primary responsibility is to facilitate and lead the board in the execution of its role to determine the organization’s overall direction and oversight of its finances. Board members are ambassadors of HLAS in the community. It’s my job to provide the support and information requested and needed by the board members to facilitate this role. The Board and its members seek to establish connections in the community with constituencies that both support HLAS with funding and partnership efforts, and also with those agencies and communities serving the same clients we serve.

SWM: Being chair of the board and a partner at Bousquet Holstein, how do you balance your time and energy?

Virginia: Timing. With the support of my partners at Bousquet Holstein, I was able to reduce my work with clients by about 20 percent to allow time to work as HLAS board chair. Ordinarily, the work as a board chair wouldn’t have been so time consuming, but 2017 was a year of change for HLAS. HLAS had planned for most of that change, but there were several opportunities and challenges that simply required more time than would be the usual case. I are looking forward to a less eventful 2018, but we shall see. We have been tapped to create a Model Appeals Office for the state, so there will be facility and staff challenges with that effort – which is the good news.

SWM: Talk about the role HLAS plays for the CNY community.

Virginia: HLAS is one of the backbone organizations of this community. Syracuse offers great opportunities for family and growth, but access to those opportunities is not universal. An all-too-large number of folks here face legal challenges that block access to the good offered. HLAS provides a legal support system for families and individuals struggling with legal challenges that might limit their ability to support and keep their families together. We provide legal assistance at critical times in the lives of our neighbors. We offer access to the opportunities in Syracuse that would otherwise be denied.

SWM: Any other information you’d like to include?

Virginia: HLAS continues to innovate and challenge the “because that is the way we do it” response. We look to employ the appropriate assistance of technology and restructure delivery systems. These innovations have been championed by Linda, with the full support of the management team and staff at HLAS. Our legal assistance to individuals and families is vital to any effort to pull Syracuse out of the poverty profile it currently wears.

Nancy Farrell
Supervising attorney, family court

SWM: How and why did you get involved with HLAS? 

Nancy: I was living and working in Portland, ME, doing commercial real estate work and feeling unfulfilled. I wanted to be back in Syracuse and helping people help themselves. Jason Torreano and I had met years ago interning in Washington D.C., and I saw through Facebook that he worked at HLAS. So, I started looking into the organization and saw all the ways HLAS strives to provide quality legal representation to a community that otherwise would go underrepresented. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

SWM: What are your responsibilities as supervising attorney for the family court program?

Nancy: We’re contracted with the county to represent individuals assigned by the courts after it’s determined they cannot afford representation. FCP represents individuals accused of neglecting or abusing their children, in custody/parenting time matters, family offense matters and child support matters. As supervising attorney, I oversee a team of nine hardworking and zealous attorneys and eight dedicated and collaborative support staff.
My position includes hiring and training new staff; troubleshooting challenging cases; providing a sounding board and guidance on cases; continuing training for more experienced attorneys to ensure we are up-to-date on the most recent laws, case law and legal practices; second-chairing difficult cases; covering cases in multiple parts of court when an attorney is ill or otherwise unavailable; responding to client concerns; carrying a small caseload of my own; actively participating in HLAS management team meetings; advocating for FCP at management meetings; addressing FCP staff concerns; representing HLAS at various court meetings, such as the strengthening family treatment court and child welfare stakeholders meetings. Additionally, it’s important for me as a supervisor to know the individuals that make up the family court program team, to be cognizant of when they are stressed, under a lot of pressure — whether it is personally or professionally — and to provide the professional support to ensure they can continue to grow as a team member and also continue to provide exceptional service to our clients.

SWM: You joined HLAS in 2014. How have you seen the organization evolve in those years?

Nancy: HLAS has grown as an organization, hiring more people. I think the most noticeable evolution has been this last year, with a change in leadership, beginning when Susan Horn retired and former FCP supervisor, Linda Gehron, was selected by the board be president and CEO. Shortly after Linda began her new position, I was selected to be the supervising attorney for FCP.
Linda has hired or promoted several other people within the organization into supervisory positions and created a management team. The management team meets regularly and is in daily communication. Linda has worked tirelessly this last year to raise the bar with the quality and quantity of our representation. She has aggressively sought out new funding sources to allow HLAS to grow and meet the high demand for legal representation in so many areas, including but not limited to housing and immigration. Additionally, the management team has recognized the importance of assisting staff in growing in their careers here at HLAS and we have continuously brainstormed and implemented trainings and new leadership positions.

SWM: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Nancy: First, I work with some pretty incredible people, who continuously find that extra bit of energy and drive to go one step further. Our attorneys put in long days and work weekends for our clients, and our support staff are consistently finding new ways to assist attorneys. I leave my office almost every day reflecting on how grateful I am to the people I work with.
Second, the work we do isn’t necessarily fun. We’re helping people put their lives and families back together, or helping them hold on to what they have — sometimes by a thread. Talking about someone’s child and their own parenting style is an emotional discussion.
Every day, we work with someone who suffers from a serious drug addiction or debilitating mental health condition or someone who has faced repeated trauma throughout their life. As easy as it would be to disregard all of that and focus solely on the legal side, the reality is those factors are too deeply intertwined to separate. We become a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board for life decisions, a kind word in a world that only seems to be throwing negativity around. We do all this while continuing to evaluate, research, investigate and advise them on their legal rights. We have to develop a high level of patience and really tap into our empathy. Our clients aren’t just their legal issues; they’re human beings who deserve kindness and compassion.
The most rewarding aspect of my job is when I’ve given a client every ounce of kindness, compassion and zealous advocacy I have, and because of that, they have one less concern weighing on their shoulders. They can focus on substance abuse recovery, mental health stability and, most importantly, their children.

SWM: Any other information you’d like to include? 

Nancy: Working at HLAS is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It can sometimes be all-consuming, and I have to work hard to find a work/life balance. The FCP handles more than 2,000 cases every year, each of those cases representing someone who is trying to maintain or improve their relationship with their child or children.
A person’s family is — for most people — the most important thing in the world. It’s so easy for those of us who are educated, economically stable, healthy and of sound mind to find fault in someone else’s life decisions, especially when it comes to parenting decisions. There’s a mentality that “I know best.”
One of the greatest things I’ve learned working here is it’s not my place to judge someone’s life decisions. I cannot begin to fathom or know what I would do in their situation without having lived every second of their life. A common phrase when someone is lamenting on their life situation, whatever it may be, is to respond by nodding one’s head and repeatedly saying, “I know.” I’ve learned to refrain from saying that, because the reality is I don’t know. I didn’t grow up with a learning disability; I never wondered where my next meal was coming from or where I would sleep that night; I wasn’t pushed into working at a young age instead of continuing school; I wasn’t a teen mother or father; I wasn’t in a car accident and prescribed a narcotic that ultimately led me to heroin; I didn’t come from a war-torn country, where I witnessed family members being murdered; I was never molested or raped; I didn’t grow up in a single-parent or even single-income home; and I don’t live with a bipolar or schizophrenic diagnosis.
These traumas and major life events alter, shape or contribute to how one might parent their child/ren. My job isn’t to judge them; but it’s a fine line because I have to help them see what the law and courts deem acceptable. While we have some tools and resources available to connect clients with community organizations that can provide the assistance I can’t — substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, parenting skills, housing, domestic violence — the reality is sometimes there just aren’t enough resources out there, or for one reason or another, my client isn’t able to take advantage of them.
If there’s one thought I could impress upon the community based on what I’ve learned, it;s to withhold judgment and exercise more compassion. Instead of judging and criticizing someone for “what they have done,” go out and volunteer your time at an organization that addresses the issue. I promise you will meet people and hear life stories that will make you grateful for your position in life, more empathetic to others. More importantly, it’ll make you more aware that there is a story behind every decision and action, and most people are capable of change when given the right tools and positive support.

Earnestine Williams
Board member and former client

SWM: Talk about your experience as a client of the HLAS.

Earnestine: HLAS represented me twice, once in 2012 and again in 2014. Both cases were for custody of my grandchildren. I was devastated. I had never had to go through anything like this. In 2012, it was a fight for my grandson, who had just lost his mother, a fight with a father who was not active in his life. I was represented through the CLASP program, being faced with this at the same time I was going through treatment for breast cancer. The attorney and staff at HLAS made everything easier for me. She walked me through the process. She assisted me with all the paper work. She explained the procedures and what to expect. She took that fear away. The second time around, I went in not as afraid. I was afraid of the outcome, but not afraid of the fight, because I knew I had a great team on my side. My son loves his son, but was not financially able to take him. His mother’s life was unstable and was unable to take him.

SWM: How did HLAS affected your life?

Earnestine: I have custody of both my grandsons. Without HLAS’ help, I don’t know what that outcome may have been. If I had lost my grandsons, I don’t know what their lives would have been like. HLAS has blessed me with two beautiful grandchildren, and I’m now able to watch them grow up into young men.

SWM: How did you get involved as a HLAS board member?

Earnestine: A couple board members approached me. I thought it was a good opportunity to see more of what the organization did, and to be part of that was a great opportunity. It was a chance for me to give back to the organization and community, and hopefully to give someone else a better chance at life if they need help getting out of bad situation.

SWM: Talk about the role HLAS plays for the CNY community.

Earnestine: HLAS provides legal aid for individuals and families who find themselves in bad situations and need legal help they cannot afford. HLAS is there to help those have the same chance at a better life, and the same justice as those who can afford attorneys. They are blessing to the community.

SWM: Anything else you’d like to include?

Earnestine: I would like to thank HLAS/CLASP for everything they did for me, for everything they continue to do for all the people in need. I’m so honored to be part of this organization.

For more information on Hiscock Legal Aid Society, visit hlalaw.org. Answers has been edited for length and style. 

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