By Karen Sloan

July 22, 2013 National Law Journal - The man and woman filed into the cramped, fluorescent-lit courtroom in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., and took their seats before the magistrate judge. The woman, who appeared to be in her early 30s, had petitioned for an increase in the $82 weekly child support payments the man sends her for their two children. She also wanted a card from his dental insurance plan that would prove the children are covered. Neither had the benefit of counsel.

In a thick local accent, the magistrate judge requested pay stubs and W-2s from both parties and began punching numbers into her calculator. Unfortunately for the petitioner, she concluded that the payments were already at the ceiling of 25 percent of his income. She did, however, order the man to call his union and obtain a new dental insurance card for his kids.

The 15-minute hearing was just like hundreds of matters that Kings County, N.Y., family court judges hear every day, except it was being observed and recorded by two aspiring lawyers. University of Michigan Law School student Sara Winik and Georgetown University Law Center student Adam Lovell sat in the rear of the courtroom clutching clipboards and spreadsheets. They noted whether the magistrate explained the reason for the hearing and the courtroom process or exhibited irrigation with litigants. Afterward, Winik and Lovell ducked into the hallway to conduct brief one-on-one interviews with litigants, gauging whether they felt the proceeding was fair and whether they understood what happened in the courtroom and why.

The process was part of a summer­long pro bono project dubbed the Brooklyn Family Court Child Support Study, which aims to improve the quality of legal assistance available to people who land in court but lack attorneys. Organizers hope to gain insight into how much support unrepresented litigants receive from the courts, and discover if magistrates can do more to expedite cases or ensure participants believe they were fairly treated.

The project is notable for its breadth — it counts participants from nearly every corner of the legal profession: a public interest law group; a major corporate legal department; 15 law firms; law students from across the country; the courts.

The study was conceived by the National Center for Access to Justice, a nonprofit organization housed at Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law that seeks to make the court system more fair and accessible. The study is one piece of a larger effort to establish an Access to Justice Index — an online tool that identifies which state court systems are best meeting the needs of society and which are falling short.

PFIZER INITIATIVE

The Brooklyn study got off the ground when Pfizer Inc.'s legal department offered to leverage its extensive network of partner law firms to generate the army of observers needed to keep tabs on the court proceedings for two months. The 15 firms in the Pfizer Legal Alliance — which handle many of the pharmaceutical giant's legal needs for an annual flat fee — tapped 36 summer associates from their New York offices to watch and record the family court hearings and interview litigants. The firms also freed attorneys to train and supervise the student observers. The court system itself is not directly involved in the project, but administrators have worked to ensure the study runs smoothly by advising on appropriate venues and providing the court observers with daily dockets.

To Ellen Rosenthal, a vice president and assistant general counsel who manages Pfizer's Legal Alliance, the decision to get involved was easy. She had spent the past several years devising a plan for a signature pro bono project focusing on access to justice that would involve all of the alliance firms, essentially creating a "justice corps" of attorneys. She learned of the center's ambitious Justice Index Project from Brenna DeVaney, pro bono counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, an alliance member. Skadden was already working with the center to conduct research, and the Brooklyn family court study seemed ideal for Pfizer.

"It seemed like a fabulous project for us to start out with, where our 15 firms could provide the summer associates needed to go into court," Rosenthal said. "It also has the added benefit of bringing together young lawyers from our firms at this early age."

OBJECT LESSONS

Fourteen summer associates from law firms across New York City assembled in the family court wing of the Brooklyn courthouse on a recent Wednesday, chatting with each other before breaking off into pairs and heading into the courtrooms. They spent the next three hours darting in and out of proceedings and interviewing litigants. Most people were willing to spend five or 10 minutes discussing their experience and impressions of the court once they were told that the goal was to make the process better and fairer.

For Winik, a summer associate at Kirkland & Ellis, the study was an opportunity to help strengthen the court system and see what really happens in court. "I was surprised by the fact that many of the proceedings were procedurally complicated and difficult to follow, even for a rising third-year law student," she said. "It really shows you the importance of the work that the National Center for Access to Justice and Pfizer are doing, because most of the parties before the court were pro se."

Skadden has contributed six summer associates to the effort and four supervising attorneys. "I think [the summer associates] are pleased with the opportunity to see firsthand what happens in court," DeVaney said. "I think it's been eye-opening for them to see where we are succeeding in access to justice and where we are failing."

The family court study is also a good opportunity to demonstrate to future lawyers the importance of performing pro bono work, Rosenthal added.

After two months of observing family court magistrates, the information and interviews collected by the summer associates will be analyzed by Deloitte LLP, brought into the project by Pfizer. Center director David Udell said he hopes to issue a report by the end of September. That document will look at the repercussions for litigants of lacking legal representation in child-support cases, whether magistrates could move cases more quickly and whether a correlation exists between the legal support litigants receive and their perceptions about the fairness of the process.

"Court watching is an incredibly powerful tool which I think is underutilized in general," Udell said. "It's important to understand, in cases where people don't have representation, what forms of assistance they are receiving and how we can improve that."

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.