NYLJ Lifetime Achievement Award

Helaine Barnett

, New York Law Journal


Photo by Rick Kopstein/NYLJ

Helaine Barnett has had an extraordinary public interest career, and she continues to make a difference for low-income families and individuals in New York State and throughout the United States.

She is a role model for public interest lawyers, and this recognition of her substantial record of accomplishments is an inspiration for the entire public interest bar.

Currently, she is the chair of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services. With the chief judge, she has a led a successful effort to garner support for the allocation of $55 million in civil legal services funding in the Judiciary budget to bridge the access-to-justice gap for low-income New Yorkers. Continuing her involvement with the New York University School of Law, she is also teaching a class on the access-to-justice gap.

A graduate of Barnard College in 1960 and a member of the Class of 1964 at the New York University School of Law, she has spent her entire career as a public interest lawyer. In 1966, she joined The Legal Aid Society as an associate appellate counsel in the criminal appeals bureau. In 1971, she was a leader of the effort to establish a Law Reform Unit in the Society's Civil Practice. She served as the deputy attorney-in-charge of civil practice, and then attorney-in-charge. From 2004 through 2009, she was the longest-serving president of the federal Legal Services Corporation.

In each of these positions, her tenure has been characterized by legal excellence and innovation. As a young criminal appeals attorney, the giants of Legal Aid's appellate and post-conviction work often remarked that it was Helaine who could prevail in the really hard cases. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she mobilized the 9/11 Disaster Assistance Initiative. Earlier, she created Legal Aid's homeless rights project and implemented a model citywide health law unit. Under her leadership, the civil practice grew into a nationally recognized provider of high-quality civil legal assistance through a network of neighborhood-based offices in all five boroughs and specialized citywide programs.

She also found time to be involved in significant law reform litigation. She brought the first civil contempt motion in the Court of Appeals while representing elderly nursing home residents who challenged the closing of their home, and obtained a civil contempt ruling from the court.

She has been a prominent leader in the American Bar Association. She has been a member of the ABA's House of Delegates, and a member of its Board of Governors and Executive Committee, the only civil legal services lawyer ever to have held those positions. She is a past chair of the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility and has been a member of the Commission on Governance. Helaine has also worked on efforts to preserve the independence and integrity of state judiciaries. By appointment of the chief judge, she has served as the cochair of New York's Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections.

She has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Margaret Brent Award from the ABA Commission on Women. The Legal Services Corporation and the New York University School of Law have established a summer law student internship in her name.

And a major priority for Helaine has been her family, including her children and her grandchildren. She is approaching her 55th anniversary with her remarkable husband, Victor.

In the mid-1960s, when she appeared for her interview with the character and fitness committee, she was pregnant with her second son. Her interviewer said that he doubted she would ever practice law. Millions of low-income children and adults in New York State and across the country who have benefited from her lifetime of achievements are fortunate that she proved her interviewer so wrong.

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