Pro Bono Community Profiles: Thomas Maligno, Touro Law’s William Randolph Hearst Public Advocacy Center

This week we had an opportunity to speak with Thomas Maligno, Executive Director of the William Randolph Hearst Public Advocacy Center and Director of Public Service at Touro Law Center in Long Island, NY. Thomas shared his experience as a pro bono and public service lawyer and discussed the unique pro bono program he directs at Touro Law. 

Tell us a little about your path to pro bono?

I was a legal services attorney involved with with various Long  Island bar associations (Bars) during a time in the 80’s when pro bono was being heavily promoted nationally. I was asked to spearhead the effort on Long Island by the executive director of Nassau/ Suffolk Law Services, Inc. (NSLS). The project, funded in part by the local bar associations, served as a partnership between the Bars and NSLS whereby members of the Bar took cases from the program. I served as the coordinator for the pro bono project from its inception in 1980 until about 1988 when I transitioned from pro bono coordinator to Executive Director of NSLS.

Thirteen years ago I was asked by the Dean of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center (Touro) to help build up public interest programming at the university. This was exciting because the transition presented an opportunity to build both literally and figuratively. At that time the law school was building a new facility and we had a vision not only to create public interest programming but to build a public interest wing to the law school. So I left NSLS and came to Touro to build the program. 

The William Randolph Hearst Public Advocacy Center is a unique program. Can you explain how the program works?

Through the William Randolph Hearst Public Advocacy Center (PAC) we give free space to advocacy organizations so they have working offices within the law school. What we get in return is a plan for them to involve our students in their work. We have a mandatory pro bono graduation requirement at Touro. One of the ways students can fulfill that requirement is by working within these agencies that are all housed within the law school.

We try to select various groups so the types of organization available for student volunteers run the gamut. We work with legal services programs, immigration groups, civil liberties organization, domestic violence advocates and much more. There are also three nationally recognized organizations with offices in the PAC: Children’s Defense Fund, Latino Justice (formerly the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund) and Empire Justice.

The PAC actually has a demand for space greater than what we have available so we work with 40 agencies as affiliates because there is not enough room to house them in the PAC. But they come and meet with our students and work with us even though they do not have offices here.

How has working within PAC’s partnership setting affected the work that you are able to accomplish through the program?

What has been wonderful about the PAC is that, in addition to providing opportunities for the students, it has allowed the agencies to work together to help find common ways to serve clients. To that end agencies have conducted joint intake, joint fundraising, joint legislative activity and I believe the collaboration has made advocacy on Long Island stronger because it has fostered the creation of all of these partnerships.

How do you manage working directly with both students and agencies?

I have found that I get the best of both worlds. I still do case work myself, plus I get to help train the next generation or pro bono and public interest advocates. One of the exciting things is that we are weaving the public advocacy agencies into the curriculum of the law school. Some of the representatives from the PAC agencies teach courses at Touro and some of the Touro professors provide pro bono assistance through the PAC. We try to ensure that the PAC is integrated into the life of the law school.

Do you believe the PAC is a model that could be replicated in other law schools?

Yes. Although not every law school can provide space for non-profit agencies there are still aspects of our program that can be replicated. Many of our alumni and other local attorneys mentor our students while working with these agencies. As I mentioned before, we have several affiliate organizations that still partner with our students despite the fact that they are not located within our facility. With the lack of resources that we are all currently facing it is crucial that we look to partnerships for opportunities to provide services.

How do you determine what agencies will be involved in the PAC?

When the project began I first reached out to local agencies and asked them to come up with a proposal on how they would not only work with our students but also how they would utilize our office space. A committee comprised of our Dean and other members of the faculty reviewed the proposals and determined which programs would be included. We then drafted a one year agreement which is assessed through an informal review at the end of each year. No one has been asked to leave but some agencies have had to leave due to reductions in funding. But inevitably each space is filled by a new agency.

Another exciting outcome of the PAC is that it has brought funding to several of the agencies involved the program. Several million dollars have been donated so the agencies could continue to work with the students through the program. Most grants have been to specific programs but occasionally funding has been obtained for groups of agencies. Two to three agencies applied for foreclosure funding together and received the grant as a partnership, rather than on an individual basis.

What was the greatest lesson you learned through your pro bono experience generally?

The greatest lesson I have learned is the importance of partnerships. We, as legal service providers, have such a difficult time – yet we all become stronger when our efforts rely on the foundation of successful partnerships.

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