A Bitter Fruit
Posted Oct 1, 2008 2:25 PM CST
By Jill Schachner Chanen
When the German government announced a reparations program last year for Holocaust survivors who worked in Nazi-controlled ghettos, the Los Angeles-based legal services agency Bet Tzedek acted quickly.
It had to. Although there was no deadline for applications, its youngest eligible client for the $3,000 or so lump-sum payments was 70—the oldest, 104.
Working with a handful of Los Angeles law firms, Bet Tzedek developed—within six weeks—a clinic model for these survivors that resulted in a 100 percent application approval rate. In the process, the agency believes it has created a model for the delivery of a broad range of pro bono services, and it plans to take the model global.
“We’ve done the heavy lifting and created a structure that is now going to be used in 25 cities. It would seem counterintuitive to use it only once,” says lawyer Elissa Barrett, Bet Tzedek’s pro bono director.
The quest for a new model of form-driven legal services began two years ago when the Hungarian government began offering war reparations and Bet Tzedek was swamped with clients seeking assistance in filing claims.
This time—working with lawyers from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; Latham & Watkins; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; and O’Melveny & Myers—they leveraged law expertise with the agency’s social service network: Bet Tzedek’s partner agencies recruited clients while the law firms screened for conflicts and scheduled one-on-one appointments with eligible survivors.
Before the client’s arrival, each lawyer went through several hours of intensive training in order to properly complete the forms. Bet Tzedek provided additional backup to ensure that each survivor walked away with a properly completed reparations application—and that each lawyer walked away with a feeling of satisfaction.
“It is a unique opportunity to meet a human being who has survived one of the greatest genocides of our time,” Barrett says.
At the insistence of Cristin Zeisler, pro bono director at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the program has expanded to more than two dozen cities—with international expansion planned for Frankfurt, London and Toronto to accommodate more of the estimated 60,000 eligible survivors worldwide.
Essential to that expansion is “ironclad” training, which was accomplished through the use of DLA Piper’s state-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities, Zeisler says. “The application is deceptively simple, but there are quite a few nuances.”
For Barrett the next question is how such a model can be used again. “A number of legal needs can be met that are all very form-based and formulaic. So if you can learn the model and how to reach the clients, we could potentially provide this kind of clinic model in a number of areas.”