Adriene Holder is optimistic. In these economic hard times, that would be unusual enough. But Holder is the Attorney-in-Charge of the Civil Practice Division at the Legal Aid Society that has seen some of its funding dry up while the demand for its services increases.
“With the influx of the new poor, there are new sympathies to help those who have fallen on hard times,” she said. “This attention will ultimately benefit the chronic poor.” And she believes that Legal Aid will be up to the challenge. “Because New Yorkers are suffering, we have to do more.”
When most people think of Legal Aid they think of the Criminal Practice Division that supplies free legal services to those who are charged with a crime and cannot afford a lawyer. The Civil Practice Division essentially looks out for the rights of low-income New Yorkers to help them maintain the basic necessities of life—housing, health care, and food. In addition, Holder’s office will supply legal help for a whole range of legal problems, including domestic violence, family law, immigration, employment, and consumer law issues. Essentially, the Civil Practice Division looks out for those who cannot look out for themselves. The other two divisions include Juvenile Practice and Law Reform.
Holder has been with Legal Aid for seventeen years and in that time has seen the demand for services grow. These times, however, are more critical. “Our major donors have been impacted,” she said. “A lot of [those donors] were dependent upon the financial institutions. We will have to do more with less.”
One reason for Holder’s optimism is that she sees lawmakers on the state and national level reaching out to Legal Aid. “We have a very productive working relationship with Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Charles Rangel,” she said. State legislators have also been responsive and the office of State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has requested a meeting to hear about Legal Aid’s concerns. Because Holder’s office is on the front lines, constantly networking with social services agencies and talking to residents, “We see problems as they happen,” she said. “We tell everyone, `keep your eyes and ears open.’ If we hear people requesting a certain service, we need to do that.”
Holder was born in Indianapolis and grew up an only child in San Francisco. She graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta, but always had a desire to live in New York, even though some friends and family told her the city “would eat you up.” After receiving her law degree from Columbia, she took a job with Legal Aid. “I knew I wanted to do public interest law,” she said, knowing it would be great training. Her first job was working in the Civil Division office in Harlem. “I worked with people who shared a passion and a compassion for lower income people in New York,” she said.
Legal Aid went through a difficult period in 2004 after financial mismanagement at the highest levels led to multi-million dollar deficits. Holder was part of the “extremely painful” restructuring effort that followed. “We came out of it stronger, with oversight and a financial committee that every month goes over allocations,” she said.
Now, the agency is facing another financial challenge, albeit not one of its own making. Holder knows there will be challenging days ahead, but feels she’s up to the task. Besides the seventeen people she supervises, Holder continues to be inspired by all the lawyers, teachers, and regular people she has met along the way. “There are a lot of people who helped me develop into this lawyer,” she said.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite place to shop:
Lord & Taylor and Loehmann’s.
Favorite place to eat
Zoma Ethiopian/Eritrean Restaurant in Harlem.
Favorite New York sight
The Brooklyn Bridge and surrounding New York City skyline.
Favorite New York Moment:
Watching Harlem react the night that Barack Obama won the Presidential election.
What you love about New York:
The diversity, resiliency, beauty and creativity of our people. These are all the things that attracted me to the City in the first place and make me proud to be a New Yorker.
What you hate about New York:
The fact that the City has so many resources yet so many New Yorkers go without.