Legal aid is crucial to those unable to afford legal services, and a career serving the underserved can be hugely rewarding. ABA Law Student Podcast host Meghan Steenburgh talks with Sally Fisher Curran about her passion for increasing access to justice and her career experiences working in legal aid.
Sally Fisher Curran is the executive director of The Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County, Inc.
ABA Law Student Podcast
A Career in Legal Aid – Perspectives from Sally Fisher Curran
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar Exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
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Meghan Steenburgh: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I am Meg Steenburgh, a 1L in Syracuse University’s College of Law JDi Program. I am also a graduate of Georgetown University and I have a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications.
My status as a current law school student follows a career in journalism, politics and state government.
Joining us today is Sally Fisher Curran, Esq. Sally Curran is the Executive Director of The Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County, Inc., a pro bono legal services organization serving low income people throughout Central New York, addressing issues such as immigration, family matters, LGBT rights, homeless needs and community economic development.
Prior to this, Sally had a family law practice in Portland, Maine, where she provided more than 200 hours of pro bono service every year. Sally graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maine with degrees in Spanish Language and Women’s Studies and obtained her Juris Doctorate at the City University of New York College of Law. She is licensed to practice law in New York and Maine.
She has served as an Adjunct Professor of Law heading the LGBT Community Clinic for Cornell Law. She serves on various boards and is a member of the New York State Bar Association President’s Committee on Access to Justice and Committee on LGBT People and the Law as well as Co-Chair of the Committee on Legal Aid.
Thank you for joining us today.
Sally Fisher Curran: Thank you for having me.
Meghan Steenburgh: Absolutely. Well, I had the pleasure of listening to you speak a couple of months ago and you have so much knowledge to impart, I thought you would be perfect for this.
Not long ago you attended the New York State Bar Association meeting and as I just mentioned you are on the President’s Committee on Access to Justice and Committee on LGBT People and the Law in particular, what are your priorities for the New York State Bar Association and how do those efforts compare with other bars across the nation, if you know?
Sally Fisher Curran: Well, what I can say is that the New York State Bar Association or NYSBA as we call it is an unquestionable leader in access to justice initiatives in the country. They have really taken leadership in supporting funding for legal aid for low income community members, such as the money that the New York courts put aside every year.
The New York courts are unique. They put aside a $100 million a year for legal aid and by comparison the federal government puts the other — a little bit less or right around $500 million a year. So I mean we are talking about 20% of that is being matched just by New York State, it’s really remarkable.
But of course every budget season it’s a battle to make sure that that funding remains in there and the State Bar Association has made it one of its main priorities for quite some time.
They also are supporting — really taking a lead in supporting a new ask for funding for immigration defense, which is really an interesting initiative. There is this statewide initiative to create a right to counsel in immigration proceedings, very similar to the right to counsel in criminal proceedings that has existed in all states since the 60s, since the Gideon case. So it’s really an exciting initiative, it will be interesting to see if it’s able to be funded, but the State Bar is really doing some great work in that regard.
Within the Committee on Legal Aid, we are looking at a couple of different issues that are more like internal and the ways that it will affect our clients, issues like diversity and inclusion and anti-oppression and alternative dispute resolution. There are some big initiatives coming out of the state courts around ADR and we are trying to figure out how does that affect our clients who might not have the same level of sophistication regarding the legal system as perhaps like an opposing counsel might.
So if we know that a huge percentage of the people that go into courts are unrepresented, how do we ensure that their rights are going to be upheld in ADR settings when they might not have access to an attorney in that setting.
Meghan Steenburgh: And the ADR stands for?
Sally Fisher Curran: Alternative dispute resolution, so mediation, things like that.
Meghan Steenburgh: And so what in that particular area, in Central New York, what is the biggest need, is it immigration?
Sally Fisher Curran: The biggest need in which sense?
Meghan Steenburgh: In the legal aid sense, which part of your daily work, what do you see the most need for?
Sally Fisher Curran: Boy, that is a hard question to answer, because where the need most deeply lies depends somewhat on the population that you are talking about. So overarching, we did a civil legal needs survey a couple of years ago and the needs pretty closely aligned with federal surveys, just in the general population of folks that have low income and can’t afford an attorney, the biggest needs you see are housing, family law, employment law and debt issues and then coming in closely after that are things like healthcare issues, elder law issues, other items like that.
Immigration is a tremendously important issue, but it only affects non-citizens and so the percentage of the population that that affects is a lot smaller, but the consequences of those matters are so drastic and so vital in the lives of those individuals that that’s why we are trying to analogize it to criminal law and say there needs to be a right to counsel, because without representation — so for example, in an immigration case, if you are applying for asylum and you are unrepresented, the likelihood that you will be approved is probably under 10% is what the studies have found, and in some countries of origin it may be even lower than that, but the national average is under 10%.
If you are represented by an attorney the likelihood that you will be approved drastically increases. It goes well above 50%, and in some regions, in some countries of origin it goes up to 80%, 90% approval when you are represented by an attorney.
And when you are looking at an asylum case where if it’s not approved, this person is going to be put into removal proceedings and sent back to this country where they have a genuine fear of returning, I mean that is about as serious as it gets.
Meghan Steenburgh: You can hear the passion in your voice, for students in law school right now, can they help in situations like this and with organizations like yours, how would you instruct them to get involved?
Sally Fisher Curran: Absolutely they can get involved and they can help, and I can say not only at our organization, but at pro bono organizations across the country and many legal aid organizations as well. Almost all legal aid organizations take on summer interns where people can work full-time for anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks and during the school year there is internship and externship opportunities where you are doing 8 to 15 hours a week in that office.
And when you are looking at these opportunities as a law student, you really want to get a sense of what’s the kind of work that you will have the opportunity to do and who will be supervising that work. Your work will always be supervised by an attorney, but depending on the needs of the organization and your interest, you could be doing a wide variety of things.
At my organization we use interns in so many different ways, from things like client intake, helping us doing some callbacks and screening, to drafting court forms, to doing in-depth legal research. So it really depends on the interest of the student, the programmatic needs, and then to a certain extent there is always some luck of the draw, does a really crazy case come in where we need some interesting legal research done.
Meghan Steenburgh: Did you know you always wanted to be a lawyer?
Sally Fisher Curran: I did not. When I graduated from undergrad I actually started a Master’s program in Gender in the Social Sciences because I thought I wanted to go the academia route, but within about a semester, certainly within the first year, but within about a month semester I decided that that was not the route for me. I really was interested in doing something more concrete, to do direct advocacy.
So when I say that I mean I certainly have friends who are professors in the social sciences and they are doing amazing advocacy work in the community around access to justice or people’s rights, but I really wanted to have a profession where every day I would be going in and advocating for somebody and I was learning a system that is very difficult for people to maneuver on their own and helping demystify that system and helping people with access to justice.
So I left that program after a year — well, actually it was after a semester and then took some time off to prep for law school and then went to law school.
Meghan Steenburgh: So much of your community advocacy is for the LGBT community. What is the biggest struggle right now legally for the LGBT community?
Sally Fisher Curran: So that’s a passion project that I have always cared so much about. I personally identify as LGBT and so I think that that’s where a lot of the passion for this comes from and also as a result I am pretty deeply involved in the LGBT community. And you just see the needs all around you all the time and it also tends to be an underserved community. It sort of ends up being, once everything else is done, the leftovers can go to that community. And so I have really tried to make sure that whatever we were doing, we were reaching out to the LGBT community and addressing whatever unique needs are coming out of there.
And so on a national level and even statewide level I will say that there is no question that the biggest issue that is facing the LGBT community is discrimination and that’s certainly where the most interesting cases are progressing at this point.
There is this question that is out there in several different cases that were consolidated in front of the Supreme Court regarding the definition of sex under Title VII and whether or not sex can be read to include sexual orientation and gender identity or not. And so we have some really big decisions that are going to be coming down soon, it’s already been argued, so we are just waiting to find out.
And I have to say it’s a very anxiety-inducing time, because we don’t have a clear idea how this Supreme Court could rule and many of us are very worried about how that could come out. It could really be quite a setback, because realistically speaking trying to work sexual orientation and gender identity into the non-discrimination statutes that we have on a federal level is going to be a real battle. So that’s why different advocates went the court route.
Locally I will say our LGBT program, the biggest number of cases that we get calls about are transgender name change and gender marker change and that might seem like a fairly simple thing, but it has a really transformative effect upon the individual who is seeking that and it is directly related to discrimination in so many ways, because many people are living their lives in the gender that they identify with, are very clearly — whatever that gender is and the name that they were assigned at birth and the gender they were assigned at birth very clearly does not align with their gender. And so it can cause real problems from them, from anything like being having the wrong name shouted out at waiting rooms, to getting harassed trying to get services anywhere.
So that’s a really simple thing in a lot of — legally simple thing that we are able to help with and it has a lot of very big impact in people’s lives and then it also is a good way for us to build trust in the community and start digging in deeper on those questions regarding discrimination.
Meghan Steenburgh: So out of law school as you started mentioning earlier you went to a legal aid organization in New York City and then you joined a small firm in Maine and you said I am going to go out on my own and we can hear that you are self-motivated, so it’s probably not a surprise to anybody. But you started your own firm less than two years after graduating, is that correct?
Sally Fisher Curran: That is correct, yeah.
Meghan Steenburgh: So how did you go about that? How did you have that confidence to say I can do this on my own and what advice would you give to those who are listening who are probably saying, you know what, that sounds like me?
Sally Fisher Curran: Well, so as you mentioned, I was in Maine at that time, which is where I am from originally, and Maine like many rural areas, largely the legal community is comprised of solo or small firms. There are a few large practices in Maine, large law firms, but that is not the norm. And so when you are in a rural area you start seeing that access to justice means making sure that you are able to help provide those low — often what we call low bono, so lower cost legal services.
Especially many states like Maine there is a lot less funding for legal aid and as a result there is a lot less availability of legal aid and so you have a tremendous number of people who are not going to be able to get free legal assistance or low cost legal assistance.
So when I decided to start my own firm I did so with the mindset of sort of creating my own self-funding legal aid enterprise. So I would spent a tremendous amount of my time, over 50% of my time doing either court-appointed work in a family setting, so representing children, things like that and doing pro bono work, both in family law and I was interested in immigration law, so I started taking on some pro bono cases in that area. And it’s a really great way to learn a new area of law with supervision and support from a legal aid organization.
And then the other half of my practice I would do full pay, clients that could afford me for doing divorce, custody, things like that and in that way I was able to sort of offset the free work I did.
What I would say in terms of advice on how to start your own firm, the biggest things for me were having really strong mentors. I ended up — even though I created a solo practice I got linked up with a couple of much more experienced family law attorneys that did a variety of work; one really had a boutique adoption firm, another one did predominantly guardian ad litem work for children and another one did predominantly parent representation. And I did a little bit of all three of those things.
And so I rented office space in the office that they shared and as a result I was able to get so much coaching and mentorship from those attorneys. And they also, whenever somebody couldn’t really afford them, but could afford an attorney, they would refer the clients over to me and so it helped me develop my own client stream.
That’s really critical. When you are a young attorney if you don’t have a more experienced attorney built into your practice as a mentor, you really have to find those mentors, because so much of the practice of law comes from being able to bounce ideas off of people. This is the case I have got going on, my thought of how to approach it is this, what are your thoughts, because so often in the law there is no right or wrong answer, there is no concrete, this is the obvious thing that will happen, it’s really a question of judgment and figuring out how best to advocate for your client.
Meghan Steenburgh: I appreciate you linking both of those together because I think it’s fascinating how you did build through that community effort, which then naturally led to doing what you do now and that community involvement is just so integral, not only to the success of the firm, but just to your success in that community as a human being.
With a more experienced attorney, how do you go about finding the right one? When you say you look to those mentors, do you look within that subject matter, do you just kind of — because we are still students, do you just go in and volunteer with that and say can I help you with a case, can you help me with this case, what’s the best way to go about that?
Sally Fisher Curran: I think the most important thing in trying to find a mentor is to try to figure out who are the attorneys that are well-respected in your community. So much about the practice of law again is based on the ethics of the attorney knowing that you are with somebody who is going to act completely ethically and advocate strongly for their clients and is well respected for doing good work.
In my case how I found that, actually one of the attorneys was a longtime family friend who is one of the leaders in adoption law in Maine, and in her case, I mean I knew her so I knew I respected her, but also she is part of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and I think that actually has a different title now because I think it also includes fertility attorneys as well. There are similar academies; there is an American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, there is various academies in the US, and in order to become a member of it you have to have done thousands of cases and really be well-respected. And so that’s a really good way to figure out who are the experts in our community is looking to those kinds of associations.
The other thing I will say is that as a law student, a solo may or may not be able to take you on as an intern, it’s a lot of work to oversee a law student intern and pro bono organizations like mine, we take that on and take it very seriously, because for us it’s about building up the next generation of attorneys who will then go on to do pro bono work, but not all solo firms are able to take that on, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
So if you meet an attorney that you think would be a good mentor and a good person to learn from, just ask, is there anything I can do to help? Would I be able to come — maybe they can’t have you full-time, but maybe they could have you come by a day, a week or a couple of afternoons a week to help out and you can really learn a lot that way.
Meghan Steenburgh: Yeah, I can imagine. I can only imagine being part of your clinic as well. You learn so much. What motivates you, when you get out of bed every morning, what motivates you to tackle the day?
Sally Fisher Curran: That’s always I guess it depends on the day, right? That’s a difficult question to answer. But I love the people I work with and I love the work that we are doing. It feels like the work we are doing is making an impact every single day and I think that that’s so important.
And then the other big motivator is my family and my son. And I mention that in this setting because I do think it’s really critical as lawyers that we not get lost in our work. I think it’s critical that we establish starting in law school a work-life balance. And it’s hard. As lawyers there is a tendency to overwork and it’s taught in law school, we are taught to overwork, and it’s okay to work really hard and certainly any of us, if we have a trial coming up, you might be putting in crazy long days, seven days a week, but you have to balance it out with family time or with the passions that you have, whether it’s — for a while, prior to having my son I was really into doing triathlon and it was just a great thing to focus my energy on outside of the office that in no way related to work, to just unplug.
So I think both of those are important. I think it’s important to have a job where you feel like you are making a difference in people’s lives and that you are enjoying it, to whatever — I mean nobody enjoys their job all the time, but to the extent possible you are enjoying it and then that you have some things that give you real meaning outside of work.
Meghan Steenburgh: Yeah, it’s so important and listening to you I think okay, I have got to do a better job myself
Sally Fisher Curran: Oh, it’s a journey, not a destination.
Meghan Steenburgh: Yeah. And I think you have already answered it, but is there any — is that your core piece of advice then for law school students or is there something else that you would add to that, because that’s great advice?
Sally Fisher Curran: I think that that’s really critical, making sure that you are taking care of yourself and prioritizing yourself as high as you would prioritize a client. I am not saying every minute of the day, but carve out some time for yourself.
And then the other thing I would say is there are so many different jobs that you can end up working coming out of law school and if the first one doesn’t work out don’t give up, don’t throw your hands up in the air, just keep looking, and when you find that right fit, it’s going to — you are going to have so much meaning in the work that you do.
I see the lawyers around our community move between firms until they find the right fit, both in terms of practice area and in terms of the clientele they are working with. So have faith that it will work out.
I know for me, I really enjoyed my private practice but I knew all along I would rather be doing legal aid and not have to do the custody and divorce cases where I was doing it for a significant amount of pay. I really wanted to really just focus in on the people who didn’t have access to justice on their own. And it took a couple of years to get there, but I was able to build up the skill set, both through my practice and through volunteer work on boards and things like that to be able to get this job. And so you have just got to have faith that if you build those skills you will get to the job that you want.
Meghan Steenburgh: Well, you give hope and you are inspiring many and this guidance and support is just amazing, not only to us, but to all of those you provide that guidance and support to everyday on so many levels.
Sally Fisher Curran, lawyer, Executive Director of Volunteer Lawyers Project, thank you so much for joining us.
Sally Fisher Curran: It really was my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Meghan Steenburgh: Yeah. And thank you for listening. I hope you have enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast.
I would like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on Apple Podcasts. You can reach us on Facebook at ABA for Law Students and on Twitter @abalsd. You can also find all our Law Student Podcasts at #ABAForLawStudents on Facebook and Twitter. That’s it for now.
I am Meg Steenburgh. Thank you for listening.
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