Chris Portelli, a NYLAG Senior Attorney and Project FAIR Co-Director, founded NYLAG’s new Economic Justice Clinic at St. John’s University School of Law after giving a successful training session on fair hearing advocacy at St. John’s. The Project FAIR training was organized as part of a public service career day event held at St. John’s Law School. The training sparked the enthusiasm of some forty law students in attendance, leading many of them to volunteer at the Project FAIR Legal Help Desk located at the central administrative hearing site for public benefits recipients in downtown Brooklyn. Seeing an opportunity to harness the enthusiasm of these students, Portelli worked with clinical professors of law at St. John’s to establish a law clinic specifically serving low-income and homeless New Yorkers who are struggling to obtain and maintain their public benefits. The new Economic Justice Clinic began operation in fall 2010, and engages law students for a full academic year with eight academic credits.

Portelli, who was appointed adjunct clinical professor of law at St. John’s, runs the Clinic at NYLAG, which now hosts six law students. Portelli trains the students in poverty law, fair hearing advocacy and basic lawyering skills in weekly two hour seminars held alternately at NYLAG’s office and St. John’s campus. He draws on experts at NYLAG and from the welfare advocacy community for guest speakers and round tables that engage the students in many points of view. The students then meet with clients at Project FAIR’s Legal Help Desk, where they either provide information and assistance on-site, or arrange to meet with the client at NYLAG for an interview to assess the need for representation in a fair hearing.

Through this experience, the law students gain exposure to many different areas of the law, and zealously assist their clients under Portelli’s supervision. “This clinic really gives me a lot of opportunities to gain practical experiences rather than just reading about the law in textbooks,” explained Yousung Song, a second-year law student who is part of the clinic. “The law students in the Economic Justice Clinic are hard working and dedicated to helping their clients. They are the public interest and pro bono lawyers of tomorrow,” stated Chris Portelli. “Having the opportunity to harness their talent and train them at this point in their careers is a win-win-win situation for NYLAG, St. John’s and Project FAIR.”