Neighborhood Legal Services As House Counsel to Community-Based Efforts to Achieve Economic Justice: The East Brooklyn Experience


If it is really equal justice we are concerned about, then the use of law, the knowledge of law and the role of lawyers means more than simply the availability of a lawyer at the moment a legal defense is required or… [a] ‘test case’ is [sought]. Other major elements of the population do not so restrict the term ‘legal aid’ where they are themselves concerned.

Business [people], individually and in their corporate capacities, use lawyers in a multitude of ways to advance their immediate and long-range interests. Lawyers are prime tacticians and strategists for advancing economic goals of corporations. Lawyers are lobbyists and propagandists. Lawyers are negotiators and advocates in the truest and broadest sense of the term, and not merely when suit has been brought against the corporation.

. . . The same concept of legal assistance should apply to the poor. . . The new legal aid lawyer’s role should be defined by the broadest reaches of advocacy, just as is the role of the corporation lawyer and the labor lawyer and the real estate board lawyer. Central to the new legal aid lawyer’s role is the task of helping to articulate and promote the hopes, the dreams, and the real possibility for the impoverished to make the social changes that they feel are needed, through whatever lawful methods are available.

– Edward V. Sparer

It has been more than thirty years since Ed Sparer issued this call. For the past two decades, Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A has been putting Sparer’s vision into practice in the predominantly low-income, African American and Latino/a eastern section of Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn A serves as corporate house counsel to East Brooklyn community organizations pursuing a strategy of community-based economic development. Its experience provides an important and exciting model for public interest lawyers seeking to assist community-based efforts to achieve economic justice in the 1990s.

This introduction provides an overview of the nature and importance of community-based economic development (CED), the types of commu- nity groups involved in this process, the contributions that lawyers canmake, and the significance of Brooklyn A’s community development prac- tice as a model of CED lawyering. Section I describes the context of the East Brooklyn experience through brief profiles of the East Brooklyn communities, Brooklyn A, its Community Development Unit, and the Unit’s work. Section II describes Brooklyn A’s house counsel approach and explains the rationale behind it. The main body of this article (Section III) examines the work of Brooklyn A’s Community Development Unit through three detailed case studies. Section IV draws upon the case studies to assess the advantages and disadvantages of Brooklyn A’s approach and the lessons its experience offers to other public interest lawyers and law offices.

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