Interview with Rochester Legal Aid Society Director, Carla Palumbo

Last December, while visiting my partner’s family in Rochester, I met Carla when she welcomed me into her home for a New Year’s Eve celebration. Carla is a lifelong friend of my partner’s mother who had told me for months how amazing Carla is in her advocacy and community work and how she couldn’t wait to introduce us. Not only is Carla wonderfully warm, inviting, and fun-loving, she is hard-working, ambitious, and tremendously knowledgeable about and involved in her community. As the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, she leads the nonprofit organization in helping thousands of individuals every year in the city, which according to a September 2016 Democrat & Chronicle article has some of the highest rates of poverty of like-sized cities throughout the US. With a population of approximately 210,000 and over 1/3 of individuals and families in Rochester living below the poverty line, Carla’s work is immensely important. Unlike in criminal cases, the right to a lawyer whether you can afford one or not is not guaranteed in civil matters, and according to a 2013 NYTimes article, 80% of the legal needs of low-income Americans are unmet. Carla and her colleagues work to close this justice gap by providing free direct legal services to low-income individuals in civil matters such as housing, immigration, custody, child support, divorce, domestic violence, and youth access to education. I was able to learn more about this work, her time in public office (she's a former Rochester City Council member!), and of course, the women who inspired her along the way.

First off, can you tell us about the Legal Aid Society of Rochester and the work you do there as Executive Director?

Fanny Bigelow was the first board chair of LAS Rochester.

Fanny Bigelow was the first board chair of LAS Rochester.

I became the President and CEO of LAS in December of 2014, but I started at LAS in 1984 as a staff attorney. Although I worked for a bit at the Attorney General’s office while awaiting admission to the bar, it has been my honor to spend what I consider my entire career at LAS and now lead it. LAS has been around for a very long time. We celebrated 95 years of incorporation in 2015, but we trace our history to 1893 and Susan B. Anthony. We were the Legal Protection Committee of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union.

The goal of the Legal Protection Committee was: to "…command the social and legal rights of women to public attention... assist in all measures which may be taken to secure the (legal) rights of any who may apply..." In its early days, LAS was an advocate for change in the legal system promoting pro-bono services, and for a period, providing public defender services. We eventually grew to become a stand-alone agency, funded by what was the precursor to the United Way.

LAS has grown to a large agency employing 72 people; 36 of whom are lawyers. We provide a wide variety of services including: family law with a focus on domestic violence victims, housing, eviction prevention, foreclosure prevention, consumer protection, immigration rights, education law, and assigned counsel representation of children in family court. Throughout its history, the Legal Aid Society of Rochester has provided direct legal services to low and moderate-income residents in the Monroe County area. We continue to advocate for change and increased access to justice for all.

How has your role in the agency developed over time, and how have you seen the community of Rochester benefit from and change because of Legal Aid's services in the past two decades?

When I started at LAS, we were a small agency attempting to address an overwhelming need for civil legal services. For the most part, there is no right to counsel in a civil case and therefore funding is not guaranteed as it is in criminal matters. LAS has always strived to provide direct day to day representation to address the immediate needs of the indigent in Monroe County. Since I started in 1984, I have seen LAS focus more on specific types of matters so that we can prioritize and marshal our limited resources to where they are needed the most. In many of our cases, we measure impact and look at whether we have made a difference. We know this:

  • We provide legal services to around 10,000 people per year;
  • We save our clients approximately 3 million dollars per year, either in preventing inappropriate collections or in obtaining benefits such as child support;
  • 70% of our domestic violence clients obtain a final order to help them be safe compared to 38% who appear in Court without representation or with attorneys who are not LAS-affiliated;
  • 90% of our domestic violence clients report no further abuse from 30 days to 6 months after case closure, compared to 65% of victims nationwide;
  • 95% of the tenants we represent maintain stable housing.

I read that in 1990 you developed the Domestic Violence program there, can you tell us more about that amazing feat?

In 1990 when the previous Director took over, his vision was to go from a generalist practice where all attorneys took all cases to a more specialized practice. To that end, I developed the Domestic Violence Program, The Tenant Advocacy Program, and the Hispanic Outreach Program. We knew that people were slipping through the cracks as we were not representing as many victims of domestic violence as we should, nor were we representing as many tenants.

The Domestic Violence Program was one of the first domestic violence legal services programs in New York State. We were welcomed with open arms by our domestic violence provider, Alternatives for Battered Women, and began to work collaboratively. That collaboration continues today. Together, we developed and continue to operate the Court Advocacy Program, which provides for an attorney and a domestic violence advocate who together respond to a client’s needs.  

Victims of domestic violence need a more comprehensive and holistic form of legal assistance including the support necessary to leave their abuser. Our attorneys are specially trained to provide this kind of representation and to spend the time a client needs to make the difficult and dangerous decision to leave an abusive relationship.

What made you decide to become a lawyer and get involved with Legal Aid in the first place?

My road to law school was very non-traditional. I was a language major in college; at one point my best friend Peggy and I dreamed of the foreign service! I knew I loved languages, and I knew that I wanted to do something to help others. My college counselor told me, "You don’t have what it takes to become a lawyer. You should become a teacher." Though I took the credits and got my teaching certificate, it wasn’t a good fit. Honestly, I had a hard time in choosing between law school and graduate school to study Spanish Lit. In the end, law school chose me, and though it was a true struggle - I was challenged more than I had ever been - I finished. After I was out about a year, I applied for Legal Aid and was offered the job on the spot. By the time I got back to my office, I knew this was the job for me. I knew I was home. I walked in the door in 1984 and never left.

Can you talk about the need for organizations such as yours - in Rochester but also in general for society-at-large?

Because there is no right to counsel in a civil matter, without funded civil legal services there would be no ability for low-income litigants to have representation. On a personal level to those individuals, it’s a matter of going to Court unrepresented to face eviction, foreclosure, divorce, domestic violence, or deportation. On a community-wide level, it’s about affording those less fortunate appropriate and meaningful access to justice. Unlike in criminal matters, there is NO constitutional right to representation or assistance. If not for programs like Legal Aid, people would simply be unrepresented, left to fend for themselves against well-represented individuals or governmental systems. In addition to staffed programs, most communities also have pro-bono programs; private lawyers who volunteer to represent clients without charge. Those are important stop-gap programs but alone cannot meet the need.

Over the past several years, the former Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippmann made it his mission to increase statewide funding for civil legal services. Over time 100 million dollars was added to the State Judiciary budget. That money is distributed across New York State. This funding is awesome and has helped us stabilize our programs, but even with that large amount, statewide, we only meet 30% of the need for representation. 

I know you also served as a City Councilwoman for Rochester for 14 years - can you tell us about what it was like to serve your community in that way? What made you want to run for office in the first place? What were some highlights of your time on the City Council you could share with us? And how did you balance that and working full-time at Legal Aid? 

Let me clarify that I ran first for the county legislature, a 29 district body that governs Monroe County. I ran in 2001, in a very challenging race. I first was challenged in my own party in a primary. I won and then went on to unseat an incumbent Republican legislator in a very hard-fought race. Unfortunately, the primary election coincided with 9-11; I will never forget the horror of that day - it is forever tied to that election.

The final victory, however, was sweet, and I joined the legislature as only one of four women legislators. I was in the minority party and learned very quickly there was neither cooperation nor bipartisanship in that body. I persevered, however, and in the first year worked with a bi-partisan “faction” to push for a bipartisan budget. I ultimately became the Minority Leader, and before I left the legislature managed to get bipartisan support for a bill to provide housing protections to victims of domestic violence.

I ran for City Council in 2007 to fill a seat for a retiring councilperson. The City Council, by the way party enrollment is in the City, tends to be an all Democrat body with no Republican representation. That means that the issues we had were not over partisanship but rather substance. Though we were all from the same party, there wasn’t always agreement, and we had several lively and healthy debates. Another difference is that with my election, the City Council became majority women! 6 out of the 9 seats were held by women when I joined council.

I helped shape legislation on issues ranging from dangerous dogs to domestic violence. I served as Chair of the Neighborhood and Economic Development Committee and focused on the revitalization of our neighborhoods and the economic development of the city, predominantly downtown.

It was a great experience but one I could not continue once I became the CEO at LAS. Being on the City Council requires a huge time commitment, both at council and in the neighborhood, and after balancing that for 8 years, I decided not to run for a third term.

As I'm sure you know, there is a huge under-representation of women in government offices - a few stats: currently, women only make up 19.4% of Congress, 24.9% of state legislatures, and in the 100 largest US cities, only 20% have women mayors! (stats from the Center for American Women and Politics) Thus, the push for women to run for public office is ever-increasing - what advice would you offer to women looking to run for an elected official position for the first time? 

Most important is to get involved. Get involved in your party at the local level, help others who are running and be active. That not only shows people who select candidates that you are willing to put the work in but helps you learn about the community and what needs to be done. You can’t just wake up one day to decide to run; I think you need to educate yourself about the process and plan for it.

But, most importantly is that women who think they might be interested SHOULD run! We need to have full representation in all of our elected positions, women are vastly underrepresented, and that must be fixed if we ever want to see change.

I would urge women to join their local committees, look for opportunities to train as a candidate that most parties conduct and get involved. It will flow naturally from there!

Who are three women you look up to or have inspired you in your life and why?

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My Mother .. she was awesome! She grew up in the '30s and always wanted to be a teacher but was told that she didn’t need to go to college. She always remembered that and always supported me to ensure that I was never held back from anything I wanted to do. My parents encouraged me, insisted on school and getting an education and achieving my dreams.

My high school Spanish teacher Miss K was a wonderful role model and my biggest cheerleader growing up in high school. She helped me discover my love and talent for languages and taught me to strive to reach my goals. I feel a real connection to Susan B. Anthony. She led the fight for equality from here in Rochester that changed the face of our nation. As one of the founders of LAS, I feel that she is a true role model for change; showing us that when you see injustice, you must step up. Now, more than ever, this is so important in our nation. Though attributed to Margret Mead and not Susan B. Anthony, one of my favorite sayings is this: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." That encompasses what I believe is important in life. Working with others to bring change for the better.

What are three of your favorite books?

So, I will admit that I am not one for particularly intellectual reading. I like to be entertained, so I like to read mysteries, who-done-its, and some horror. Always a fan of Stephen King and also plenty of “summer beach books” I believe it's okay to rest your brain!

My all-time favorite books are Like Water for Chocolate (true love stands the test of time and dimension), Wicked (people are not always what they seem), and The Stand (the ultimate good vs. evil).

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is the ability to achieve your goals regardless of gender; it’s the ability to dream to the lofty heights and get there on your own merit, not because you are a woman nor in spite of being a woman, but because you can meet the challenge and be successful. We should honor those who came before us; those who paved the way and opened the doors that we can now walk through. We should help those who come after us, to continue to open doors and bring others along.