By Michele Pollock Rich, Executive Director of The Legal Project

I was blissfully unaware of the August 3rd shootings that killed 22 innocent people in El Paso, Texas, and 10 more in Dayton, Ohio, until the following day. I had enjoyed a beautiful Saturday outdoors – no TV news, no social media, no internet. I deserved a break, I had told myself, from the constant media storm of bad news and outrage. When I finally tuned back in, I watched the aftermath helplessly.

Since then, many friends have told me, “I can’t watch the news anymore,” or “I’m taking a break from social media, I can’t stand what is going on in the world,” or, “there’s nothing I can do about it.” I understand. It’s gut wrenching; we feel so small and powerless in the face of these horrible tragedies. It’s easier to tune out and ignore when tuning in just makes us feel small and helpless. But we all know, ignoring problems don’t make them go away. And the antidote to helplessness is taking action – but how, when problems seem immense and you are just one person? Where does one begin restoring justice in a chaotic world? In our own community.

Some problems, like helping our neighbors have access to justice, become more manageable when we think creatively and work together. Twenty-four years ago, members of the Capital District Women’s Bar Association identified a serious problem in our community. Victims of domestic violence who could not afford attorneys were going unrepresented in court – often with devastating, life altering consequences. These attorneys could have “tuned out” the injustice, shrugged their shoulders, or said they were too busy to find a solution. They were a small group of individuals facing a widespread societal problem. Instead, they took action. After much hard work, dedication, and countless pro bono hours, in 1995 they incorporated The Legal Project to provide access to justice for those vulnerable women and children. Today, the mission of The Legal Project is to “provide access to the protections of the law to advance the safety, stability and independence of the people we serve and strengthen our communities. We do this by advising, advocating for and representing people who have traditionally had difficulty obtaining civil legal assistance.” The Legal Project is unique in that it addresses the civil legal needs of the working poor – those who “on paper” make too much money to qualify for programs for the indigent, but who do not earn enough to pay the fees of private attorneys. Our founders at the Capital District Women’s Bar Association became the change agents – the justice bringers – and provided access to justice for this overlooked population. They knew what we still believe: Justice is not a spectator sport. You can’t watch from the sidelines and expect things to change.

The reputation of The Legal Project’s attorneys, both staff and pro bono, as experts in the representation of domestic violence victims is well deserved. Over the years, we have represented thousands of victims of domestic violence in matters ranging from orders of protection, child custody, support, and divorce. Each individual is treated with dignity and compassion in a nonjudgmental, trauma informed manner. Additionally, we have trained hundreds of private attorneys to work with the unique issues facing victims of domestic violence. We also represent victims of sexual assault, campus violence, and other crimes in civil matters related to their victimization, striving to see the whole person – not just their legal issue.

Our programs have expanded over the years to meet the needs of the community. Our Immigration Program boasts five staff attorneys, three paralegals, (two who are DOJ accredited) speaking six different languages right here in-house, offering services ranging from free individual consultations to representation on complex immigration cases including humanitarian-based immigration applications, Affirmative Asylum, VAWA, U-Visas, Family Based Petitions, Temporary Protected Status, Work Authorization and Adjustment of Status.

The Homeowner Protection Program provides legal advice and representation to homeowners who are facing foreclosure. Our hardworking team fight to keep our neighbors in their homes, helping to stabilize communities and preserve family assets. Affordable Housing Attorney Assistance (AHAA) provides free and low cost legal representation to low income home purchasers, while our Bankruptcy & Credit Program provides free legal consults and free and low cost legal representation to individuals and families struggling with financial problems and debt.

Beyond direct representation, we educate and train. In our “Legally Speaking” workshops, attorneys provide general information about a specific topic such as custody issues, landlord-tenant, and everything in between. In our legal clinics, individuals can receive a free half hour consultation with a pro bono attorney; the Small Business Legal Network trainings help people interested in starting or expanding a small business. We offer expert training for attorneys with CLEs provided on key topics. Just this spring, we provided a timely program on human trafficking that was attended by nearly 75 people. For a more complete list of our programs, visit our website We believe in equal access to the law, regardless of income, gender, disability, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. We have a special commitment to the working poor, women, immigrants and others who have traditionally had difficulty obtaining legal assistance. We don’t do this work alone. We need your help. Pro bono service is at the core of the Legal Project’s success and vital to our mission. Nearly 300 pro bono attorneys work shoulder to shoulder with our staff of 35. Some might only be able to give a few hours a year during a clinic, but as Board Member Ron Orlando asserts, “That one day you volunteer in our legal clinic is the best day you will ever have as an attorney.”

On October 24th, we will celebrate the change makers – the justice bringers – the Pro Bono community who make up the soul of The Legal Project. I hope you will join us on Thursday, October 24, 2019 from 5:30-8:30 pm for our annual Reception and Auction at the Hart Theater Lounge at The Egg in downtown Albany, where we will honor the work of The Legal Project’s many volunteers and supporters and raise money to support our programs. There will be an open beer and wine bar, delicious food from many local restaurants which this event is famous for, and of course fabulous silent auction items. Be warned – we may try to recruit you for a pro bono panel. Actually, we will try to recruit you. We need you.

We can all close our eyes and ears to the horrors and injustice of the world we live in. We can turn off the TV, sign off social media, and silence our phones. We can say we are too busy to help, or that our individual efforts are too small to make a difference in the world. But you can make a difference. You can change someone’s world with your pro bono service: by helping a victim of domestic violence rebuild a life; or by helping a neighbor faced with foreclosure stay in their home. By being a zealous advocate for the immigrant family seeking a path to citizenship. By providing comfort and peace of mind helping to create a will for a terminally ill client. At The Legal Project, we have a way for you to be a change maker for someone.

Access to justice begins with you. Join us. Take action.