New, Young Help for Poor in Infamous Bronx Courts

Columbia Law School students interning with the Bronx Defenders see how court cases affect other aspects of clients’ lives such as housing, immigration and child custody.

Feature (New York)

E. C. Gogolak
New York Times (NYT)
October 11, 2013
Link to story

Tags: Law School Clinics

Organizations mentioned/involved: Bronx Defenders, Columbia Law School


For the Bronx Defenders, exposing the interns to the realities of a tattered court system fits with its philosophy that public defense must go beyond just matters of law and look at how court cases, even minor ones, can affect other aspects of clients’ lives, including housing, immigration and child custody.

“People come into the criminal justice system, and they almost never just have one problem,” said Robin Steinberg, the founder and executive director of the Bronx Defenders.

It is a message Ms. Steinberg wants to instill in young aspiring lawyers before they enter the profession.

“The way in which public defense has traditionally never thought about that in some ways reflects the law school conundrum, which is that we learn a lot in very siloed ways,” she said, ticking off subjects like constitutional law, criminal law, torts and contracts. Ms. Steinberg said her work at the Bronx Defenders got her thinking, “What could we do to begin to get people, before they become lawyers, to begin to think about the work they are doing in a much broader way?”

Two years ago, she approached Ellen Chapnick, the dean for social justice initiatives at Columbia Law School. One of the appeals of teaming up with the Bronx Defenders, Ms. Chapnick said, was the opportunity for students to see “the clients as whole people” and “not just as people who are accused of a crime.”