Being a public defender is difficult and certainly not the most high-paying job, but for many lawyers at the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, it’s a calling.
The 55 staff attorneys and supervisors at the Hempstead-based nonprofit organization are appointed to those who have criminal charges or complaints against them who cannot afford private lawyers but have a right to counsel. Staff attorneys represent all those arrested for felonies and misdemeanors in the county, unless they have their own lawyer, as well as individuals in family court. So what brings these law school graduates and experienced attorneys to work at the Legal Aid Society?
“I think it’s a commitment to social justice and helping people out who are struggling — people who themselves have had issues in life and been in a criminal justice, educational, social service system that has passed them by and not met their needs,” says N. Scott Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County. “We try to be client-centric not just with their court needs so that they don’t get in the same situation that got them arrested in the first place.”
Legal Aid is funded by Nassau County because the county must offer legal counsel to indigent criminal and civil court defendants. The funding isn’t exactly top-dollar, making it difficult to retain experienced attorneys, so Banks hires only those who he believes truly want to work there.
“What I want to see from the law grads is a commitment to the work and caring about the client,” he says. “You can’t do this work if you just want to get some law experience. Where that comes from? It’s really within you.
“If you come into this thinking, ‘I’m a lawyer, I’m going to make a lot of money’ … You can make a living here, but it’s not the same as private practice. Not everyone can do it,” he adds.
Over the past year, the Covid pandemic has exacerbated economic and racial disparities on Long Island, and Legal Aid has been at the forefront of that. Banks calls these challenging yet exciting times for the nonprofit firm.
There’s a lot of problems to resolve and clients who need their help. There are also new police reform laws, which Banks offered input for on the county level, as well as the state’s recent discovery and bail reform laws.
“It’s a new day in criminal defense,” he says.
Legal Aid is expecting state funding for a new program to help juveniles with behavioral problems in noncriminal cases. Though the nonprofit does not run fundraising campaigns, any individual donations it receives go toward buying professional clothing for defendants who cannot afford it for their court dates.