Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ) provides comprehensive legal services to economically-disadvantaged adults, children, and families in New Jersey to ensure fair and equal treatment within the legal system. Programs include free legal counsel and advice, educational seminars on various legal matters, and direct representation for at-risk individuals facing critical civil legal issues. Established in 2001, VLJ has grown from a grass roots effort of 30 volunteer attorneys in Essex County to a state-wide 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation with hundreds of volunteer attorneys providing free legal services to thousands of clients each year.
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FACTS 2014: Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ)
P.O. Box 32040, Newark, New Jersey 07102
Media Contact: Christine Ziomek / (201) 796-7788 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Overview and History
Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ) provides comprehensive legal services to economically disadvantaged adults, children, and families in New Jersey to ensure fair and equal treatment within the legal system. Programs include free legal counsel and advice, educational seminars on various legal matters, and direct representation for at-risk individuals facing critical civil legal issues.
Established in 2001, VLJ has grown from a grass roots effort of 30 volunteer attorneys in Essex County to a state-wide 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation with hundreds of volunteer attorneys providing free legal services to thousands of clients each year.
VLJ has received awards for its work from organizations such as the Essex County Bar Association, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the New Jersey State Bar Foundation. It is an approved legal services provider of the New Jersey Supreme Court. This designation allows certain court costs and filing fees to be waived for VLJ’s clients, enables VLJ volunteer attorneys to claim an exemption from mandatory pro bono assignments after 25 hours of voluntary service, and provides the opportunity for out-of-state attorneys to volunteer with the program.
VLJ has developed a number of programs to support its mission including:
- Direct Referral Program: VLJ receives cases from the local courts or community organizations that do not have the resources to meet the legal needs of their indigent clients. These cases are then referred to VLJ’s volunteer attorneys who are trained and mentored by VLJ staff and volunteers.
- Newark Reentry Legal Services (ReLeSe): ReLeSe helps low-income Essex County residents with criminal records address the civil legal barriers that serve as obstacles to their successful community reintegration. Created in partnership with Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s administration, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and other community partners, ReLeSe targets the areas of greatest need among the reentry population. Through direct in-house representation as well as through referrals to volunteer attorneys, ReLeSe assists its clients with driver’s license restoration, resolution of long out-standing municipal matters, modification of child support orders, and the expungement of criminal records.
- Children’s Special Education Project: This program helps ensure that children with special education needs receive appropriate services in their school settings. VLJ volunteers assist parents/caretakers in securing evaluations, individualized education plans, special education services, and/or out-of-district placements where warranted.
- Divorce Clinics: A partnership of the Essex County Family Court and VLJ, this program assists low-income individuals, many of whom have waited years for legal assistance, secure judgments of divorce. Clinics are held monthly at the Essex County Family Courthouse.
- Family Motions Clinics: Created in partnership with the Essex County Family Court and the matrimonial clerk’s office, these clinics, also held monthly at the Family Courthouse, assist clients with family law issues including child support and custody.
- Merck/Lowenstein Bankruptcy Clinic: Through this initiative, in-house counsel at Merck & Co. and Lowenstein Sandler PC provide direct assistance to economically disadvantaged individuals with the preparation and filing of their Chapter 7 bankruptcy petitions and representation at subsequent trustee meetings.
- Newark Legal Advice and Resource Clinic for Consumers (NLARCC): In response to the growing number of debt collection cases filed against low income debtors-defendants in New Jersey, VLJ, the City of Newark, and Newark Now created NLARCC in 2010 to provide legal counsel and advice as well as limited scope representation to these unrepresented debtors. NLARCC provides assistance with frozen bank accounts/garnishments, improper service, credit report discrepancies, and amounts owed in dispute.
- Military Personnel/Veterans Legal Assistance Program (MLAP): This program, sponsored by PSE&G, assists New Jersey’s military and veteran population with legal issues that serve as barriers to successful reentry into the community. Assistance includes helping clients determine their eligibility for an expungement, limited scope assistance in addressing municipal court issues and child support modifications.
Karen Sacks, Esq. is the Founding Executive Director of VLJ. She began her career in the corporate legal department of a Manhattan law firm and also worked as in-house counsel for a Manhattan-based managed health care company. While in New York, she dedicated her spare time to Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS), preparing wills and other legal documents for HIV and AIDS patients. Ms. Sacks has served on the board of numerous non-profits including Lawyers with Children and Age in Action, and is currently the Vice Chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee. After graduating with honors from the University of Michigan, she went on to obtain her law degree from New York University’s School of Law, where she served as an editor of the Journal of Social Change.
Cathy Keenan, Esq. is the Director of VLJ. In this role, she oversees all of VLJ’s legal programs and she coordinates the recruitment and training of VLJ’s volunteer attorneys. Prior to joining VLJ, Ms. Keenan led a large-scale pro bono program with Legal Aid Services of Oregon, which is based in Portland, for more than nine years. Ms. Keenan also served as a judicial clerk and worked at a private law firm, primarily serving clients with family law issues. During Ms. Keenan’s distinguished career, she has served on, and chaired, numerous boards and committees focused on pro bono and legal services. Ms. Keenan is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Gina DeVito, Esq. is the Managing Attorney of VLJ’s Newark Reentry Legal Services (ReLeSe). Prior to taking on this role, Ms. DeVito was a volunteer attorney for VLJ and the ReLeSe program. Her legal career includes serving as a Deputy County Attorney in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona; an Assistant Attorney General with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office; and as the Prison Coordinator for a legal publishing company in Newark, developing electronic legal research products for inmates. She also has worked in private practice. Ms. DeVito received her bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College, her master’s degree from New York University, and her law degree from Rutgers School of Law-Newark.