VOLS was founded in 1984 in the wake of federal spending cuts that decimated the civil legal services available to low-income New Yorkers. Reagan era budget cuts squeezed legal services from two sides: Cuts to entitlement programs drastically increased the demand for civil legal services, and cuts to Legal Services Corporation funding dramatically reduced the supply.
At the same time, the city’s biggest law firms were thriving. In response to this contrast, Louis A. Craco, then President of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and a partner at Willkie, Farr & Gallagher, called on the leaders of the New York City bar to find a way to bridge the widening justice gap.
Former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, a partner at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, enlisted the city’s best law firms to join the effort. Richard S. Lombard, General Counsel for Exxon, recruited corporate law departments. And on May 1, 1984 – Law Day – Mr. Craco announced the founding of Volunteers of Legal Service, supported by nearly 50 of the city’s top firms and corporate law departments.
30 of the 50 took the VOLS Pro Bono Pledge, and agreed to complete 30 hours of pro bono service per attorney per year. The VOLS Pro Bono Pledge, the first of its kind, became a hallmark of our organization. It sent a message, understood throughout the New York City bar, that pro bono work was the duty of every respectable law firm and lawyer, and should be valued as highly as paid work.
Under the leadership of Bill Dean, VOLS set out to recruit additional firms, identify areas of need, and create volunteer projects so pro bono lawyers could make a significant difference. For example, one of our first projects addressed the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Thousands of New Yorkers were dying of AIDS and had no access to lawyers who could draft wills, health care proxies, or other life-planning documents. Through VOLS, Alexander Forger, then chairman of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, assembled a team of trust and estate attorneys to visit fellow New Yorkers in the hospital and offer them some peace of mind by putting their affairs in order.
Due to the efforts of the generation of bar leaders who founded VOLS, and to Bill Dean’s wise leadership of VOLS, pro bono work is now an essential part of the practice of every large law firm in New York City. As pro bono practice has grown, however, so has the need for it. Millions of New Yorkers still have no access to civil legal assistance when addressing critical needs, such as housing, government benefits, immigration, and family law.
Having a lawyer can mean the difference between winning and losing a case. To take one example from VOLS' own experience, claimants without lawyers at unemployment insurance hearings have only a 26 percent chance of winning. Claimants who are represented by VOLS lawyers, however, win a staggering 84 percent of the time.
In 2016, ten VOLS staff members enabled 1,000 volunteer lawyers from 50 firms to provide 18,000 hours of pro bono legal assistance benefitting 3,000 low-income New Yorkers on critical issues including immigration, elder law, family law, housing, government benefits, and community economic development. With the support of our constituent law firms, volunteer lawyers, participating community organizations, and donors, we hope to do even more to achieve justice for all in 2017.