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CUNY Law expands social justice network to India

For CUNY Law graduates who have wanted to go into social justice work — and there are many — life has not always been easy.

They rarely join a large corporate firm and often find themselves working solo or with a few other people, making it difficult to get the kind of professional support or technical training lawyers in larger organizations could more easily come by.

That is where CUNY’s Community Legal Resource Network comes into play. More than 300 social justice lawyers across the country — many of them but not all from CUNY — are now part of the decade-old program that has supported lawyers working on behalf of individuals who have been shut out of the country’s justice system because they could not afford attorneys, according to Fred Rooney, CLRN director and founder. He launched the program from the school’s Flushing campus.

The program, which has benefitted attorneys in fields ranging from immigration to housing law, has been so successful that Rooney and Symbiosis Law Principal Shashikala Gurpur are working to replicate it at Symbiosis, a law school in Pune, India.

The two launched a version of CLRN at Symbiosis, located about two hours south of Mumbai, in 2008 and Rooney recently returned from a trip to India to further solidify the program that he and Gurpur said will help to increase the representation of socially marginalized populations, such as victims of sex-trafficking.

“The most heart-wrenching cases are when you’re dealing with young women and girls who have been trafficked,” Rooney said. “In many cases, before the women are taken to the place they will work, they are taken to places where they’re systematically raped and gang raped to break down their will. There’s a stigma surrounding rape, and they know they won’t be welcomed back home in their villages if they’ve been raped. They’re relegated to sex work. Symbiosis has been very brave in its willingness to use the law school to try and make their lives better.”

The program, which trains young lawyers to set up firms in the Pune area, has been “really well-accepted by organizations and lawyers in the area,” Rooney said. Like its goal in New York, the program in India is designed to provide pro-bono and “low-bono” — representation for a minimal fee — to marginalized individuals who have not been able to afford legal services.

Rooney and Gurpur hope their efforts will encourage law students to remain in underserved communities. Rooney said many Indian law students go into corporate law due to a lack of support and resources for those who want to pursue social justice work, and Gurpur said she believes the CLRN program in India will “emerge as an effective antidote to the current corporate mania” among Indian law students.

Gurpur emphasized the importance of social justice law in India, saying effective lawyers are needed there to combat tradition that has “legitimated unjust practices such as untouchability, gender discrimination and exclusion by institutionalizing them.”

CLRN meshes well with work already conducted at Symbiosis, since the college has for years worked with non-governmental organizations to support human rights and environmental work, Gurpur said. Gurpur said the school has focused on helping the “disadvantaged sections, such as the urban poor, rural communities around Pune city, children, slum dwellers, prisoners and orphans.”

Rooney is not the only Queens resident to have visited Pune. A bevy of borough law officials have gone to India to spend time with people in the legal society there, including Astoria lawyer Enedina Pilar Sanchez.

Sanchez, a housing lawyer, said she exchanged ideas with students about setting up the CLRN in India.

“There’s a common thread that ties us all together — we and they are victims of systems that need to be addressed,” Sanchez said. “What we did in India was very gratifying because we shared with attorneys, students and professors how the practice of law is not merely a diploma that you obtain but is really a practice you do in your life of bringing knowledge of a justice system to better the lives of people.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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