View from the Bench: Hon. Elizabeth S. Stong, U.S. Bankruptcy Court – Eastern District of New York

 

ess-bio-photoThe bankruptcy court has a fascinating mix of cases, from the largest and most sophisticated Chapter 11 corporate restructuring case to the Chapter 13 case where a family is trying to save their home from foreclosure to a no-asset Chapter 7 liquidation where an individual is simply overwhelmed by consumer debt that he or she can’t possibly repay.  One of the greatest challenges to the bench and bar is how to meet the needs of the pro se debtors — and sometimes, pro se creditors — in these cases, who need relief and who stand a much better chance to succeed with legal information and advice.

One of our most effective tools for helping to meet this need is also surprisingly simple — the Pro Bono Lunch Bunch.  This began informally more than ten years ago, as we brought together the directors of all of the pro bono, public interest, and law school clinical programs that help meet the needs the pro se parties in our court.

We quickly discovered that this group had much to share in many ways.  Many programs faced similar challenges in recruiting and training volunteer lawyers, and benefited from the opportunity to exchange best practices and ideas.   Many also faced common needs with respect to training their volunteers, and here too, it worked well for this amazing group to exchange thoughts, materials, and opportunities.

Meeting on a regular basis with pro bono leaders has also been helpful to our court.  We learned, for example, that our electronic case filing system did not work well for some of these programs, where a prospective debtor works with an attorney to prepare his or her case but then files it pro se.  We were able to adapt our system so that these cases, too, could be electronically filed.  We also have the ability to hear from the lawyers on the front lines about what procedures are working well, and where we as a court can improve.

And an additional benefit has emerged over the years.  This group of very busy pro bono and public interest professionals has bonded as a community of shared interests and concerns.  We look forward to our lunch meetings not only to learn from each other and to share experiences, but also to catch up with friends.

It is surprisingly easy to set up something like this.  For us, it has worked well to be based at the courthouse, and with the assistance of our Pro Se Law Clerk, we keep an e-mail list of participants and their organizations.  On a regular basis, we schedule a meeting here at the courthouse, and attendance is good.  We prepare a short agenda — never more than a page and always with time for general discussion of trends and other topics of interest to the group.  In the summer months, we invite everyone to bring their summer interns.  Occasionally we invite guest speakers.

So, if you are looking for ways to enhance communication and improve the service that is provided to pro se litigants, think about this — maybe all you need is the right people around the table for lunch!

–Judge Elizabeth S. Stong is a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of New York.  Previously, she was a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and law clerk to U. S. District Judge David Mazzone.  She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Council of the American Law Institute, and the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and holds leadership roles in several organizations including International Insolvency Institute, Practising Law Institute, P.R.I.M.E. Finance, American Bar Foundation, and the ABA Business Law Section and National Conference of Federal Trial Judges. She also served on the ABA’s Standing Committee on the American Judicial System, Standing Committee on Continuing Legal Education, Commission on Women in the Profession, and Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. She received the ABA Glass Cutter Award, the NYIC Hon. Cecelia Goetz Award, the Brooklyn Bar Association’s Freda Nisnewitz Award for Pro Bono Service, and the MFY Legal Services Scales of Justice Award.  Judge Stong is an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School and St. John’s University School of Law.
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