Cornell Law School offers legal services for New Yorkers during pandemic

From dining room tables and childhood bedrooms, Cornell Law School faculty, students and staff are responding to the coronavirus pandemic by offering legal services to businesses and individuals in central New York.

The assistance runs the gamut, from helping businesses and workers in the region access new benefits to supporting families in immigration detention centers at risk for the virus and working with low-income residents remotely to finalize their wills.

This effort to address the legal implications of the crisis has been coordinated by the Law School’s clinical programs, which work with clients who cannot afford legal services. Faculty leaders of seven clinical programs have counseled clients, with the help of students working remotely from their homes.

Cornell impacting New York State

“The clinical program is an entire, miniature law office embedded in the Law School that has been running for 60 years; within a matter of days, the staff converted it into an online enterprise,” said Beth Lyon, associate dean for experiential education and clinical program director at the Law School.

As dozens of businesses in Tompkins County were forced to close or drastically reduce their operations, the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic helped develop a series of eight webinars to educate local companies about how they could accommodate employees’ needs and comply with new state and federal laws. The webinars, which began March 25, are co-sponsored by the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce.

“There are businesses in Ithaca that have just been devastated by this,” said Celia Bigoness, associate clinical professor of law who directs the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic. “A lot of them don’t have in-house human resources departments to help them with their compliance, which under the best of circumstances is complicated, and now the federal government and state are enacting new regulations.”

A dozen students enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic helped research and write the content for the webinars, which are free and open to the community. The sessions will be offered through the end of April and are accessible on the chamber’s website.

Another webinar will focus on the new public charge rule affecting immigrants, and the impact of COVID-19 on immigration status. The webinar, scheduled for April 13, is co-sponsored by several Cornell departments and Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga counties.

On March 30, three faculty members filed an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, supporting release of families held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. The brief was filed on behalf of nine public health experts, including Basil Safi, executive director of Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The continued detention of immigrant families is a recipe for a public health disaster,” said Ian Kysel, a co-director of the Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Clinic, who filed the brief with Lyon and Chantal Thomas, the Radice Family Professor of Law. “By the time the first cases are diagnosed in family detention, they will almost certainly have become COVID-19 hotspots.”

Meanwhile, as the state’s family courts began to shut down, Lyon and her students in the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic developed and filed – in 24 hours – an emergency motion to appoint a guardian for a young farmworker who had just lost his U.S.-based family.

Days later, a judge signed the order, giving the young man stability and putting him on a path to citizenship. “It’s a real turnaround in his life,” Lyon said.

Over the past few weeks, another clinical program, the Estate Planning Practicum, created a system for remote will execution with low-income clients in Tompkins County. The faculty who teach the practicum – Jill Miller ’88, J.D. ’91; Michael O’Connor; and Andrew Stamelman, J.D. ’83 – are adjunct professors living outside of Ithaca, and many of their students had to leave town when campus shut down in March.

“They could have said, ‘Sorry, we can’t finish your will and we’ll call you when this is all over,’” said Lyon. “But they know that having a will is especially important at a time like this, so the faculty, students and community partners are bending over backward to get this done. As lawyers and lawyers in training, we have a privilege and a special responsibility to extend our efforts to mitigate inequality as this crisis unfolds.”