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Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

April 3, 2024

Public Service Awards

By David Reiss

https://www.brooklaw.edu/News-and-Events/News/2024/04/Public-Service-Awards-Honors-the-Contributions-of-Class-of-24-and-Professionals-in-the-Field

I was happy to be sandwiched between two great public interest attorneys, Steve Banks and Jane Landry-Reyes, at last night’s Public Service Awards at Brooklyn Law School:

In a special ceremony, Brooklyn Law School honored public service work with awards for those in the field, as well as Class of 2024 members who have performed exceptionally by working in the Law School’s own clinics and on various pro bono projects.

The students honored at the April 2 event devoted a combined 87,000 hours to assisting immigrants, small business owners, survivors of domestic violence, people threatened with eviction, and many others in need of legal service. They worked with a wide range of government agencies and entities that provide critical public services, such as the Legal Aid Society, the Veterans Advocacy Project, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Additionally, three awards were presented for those who have distinguished themselves in public service careers.

President and Joseph Crea Dean David D. Meyer opened the event, describing the school’s public service work, including its five-plus decades of clinical work, as representing the “lifeblood of Brooklyn Law School.” Noting that housing justice was a key theme of the work of this year’s honorees, Meyer presented the Distinguished Commitment to Public Service Award to keynote speaker Steven Banks, special counsel in the pro bono practice at Paul, Weiss. Banks previously served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services from 2014 to 2022, where his accomplishments included establishing the first-in-the-nation Right to Counsel program for low-income tenants.

He also spent three decades at New York City’s Legal Aid Society. While there, Banks said, he visited local law schools, including Brooklyn Law School, and would have liked to hire as many graduates as he could. He recognized that while some students would go into public service, others would end up at private law firms, doing pro bono work and making an impact in other ways, he said.

“Whatever public service path you choose, the most important thing is to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to yourself, ‘I’m going to go to work to make a difference today,’ whatever you choose in the practice of law,” Banks said. “It is hard work to make a difference, but that’s really what your North Star has to be and can be. Do not forget what you knew before you went to law school, when you knew there were people who needed help. Your law degree gives you the ability to provide that help, no matter what path you choose.”

The Faculty Award for Excellence in Public Service was presented to Professor David Reiss by Assistant Professor of Law Naveen Thomas. Reiss, who is the founding director of Brooklyn Law School’s Community Development Clinic, was a pioneer in “using legal education as a tool to teach practical skills, to instill in students the lasting value of pro bono work, to empower underserved individuals and communities, and to promote economic growth from the ground up,” Thomas said.

“People often assume that business lawyers are focused solely on maximizing profits and promoting corporate interests detached from the realm of public service,” Thomas said. “But to the contrary, one of my principal goals as a law professor has been to dispel this notion by demonstrating to students that business law and public service are not incompatible, and that, in fact, when properly used, the first can be used to advance the second and David personifies this.”

In his remarks, Reiss shared some advice for students: “Always remember that feeling, in a clinic or when you are doing pro bono work of helping a person. Maybe they are faced with eviction, maybe they’re faced with the loss of their home,” Reiss said. “Remember that feeling of incredible personal satisfaction in yourself of making that difference. And everyone in this room has felt that.”

Even that very day, Reiss said, he felt that sensation of helping others when civil lawyers asked him to testify at a hearing next month for someone whose home was lost in a foreclosure rescue scam a decade ago, and to utilize his knowledge of a “very obscure area of the law” to shed light on this type of case. “They needed somebody who is very specialized to explain it to the judge in this hearing, and they asked me to do that, and I was very happy to do it,” Reiss said.

Brooklyn Law School’s write-up of the event went on to sing the praises of Jane Landry-Reyes. It was also great to hear about the arc of her career in legal services and government.

Congratulations to all of the students who won awards. Special thanks to my colleague, Naveen Thomas, for his very kind words.

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