Legal aid nonprofits provide free assistance to people who can't afford a bankruptcy attorney. See if there's a legal aid nonprofit in New York City that can help you.
Written by Attorney Jonathan Petts.
Updated December 1, 2020
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans file for bankruptcy. And each year, legal aid nonprofits across the U.S. help low-income Americans who can't afford to file for bankruptcy get through the process. Unfortunately, many Americans don't know there are legal aid organizations out there to help them.
Some locations don't have many legal aid nonprofits around to help, particularly rural areas. That is not a problem in New York City. Given the emphasis that the New York state government has put on access to justice, combined with New York’s high concentration of philanthropic foundations, charitable law firms, and wealthy individual donors, New York City has several legal aid nonprofits that help low-income New Yorkers file for bankruptcy. Some of these organizations have a long history, while others are new to the game.
Legal Aid Nonprofits Serving People across New York City
This article is meant for New Yorkers in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island who are looking for a free lawyer to help them through the bankruptcy process. Here are the free legal aid nonprofits available to low-income New Yorkers across the whole city.
Upsolve, Inc. Website: https://upsolve.org/
Mobilization for Justice Website: https://mobilizationforjustice.org/ Phone: (212) 417-3700
New York Legal Services Website: http://www.legalservicesnyc.org/ Phone: (646) 442-3630
City Bar Justice Center Website: https://www.citybarjusticecenter.org/ Phone: (212) 626-7383
If You’re in a Union
If you’re part of a worker’s union, one of your benefits may be free legal assistance from a local law firm. Larger unions, such as DC 37, which is New York City’s largest municipal public employee union, have in-house legal teams that may be able to help you file for bankruptcy as well. Call your local union office or go on your local union website to learn more about these programs.
Contacting Legal Aid in New York City
Unless you know you make above the median national income, it is a good idea to reach out to the legal aid organizations to check if you qualify. Many New Yorkers assume they make too much money to qualify without checking with their local legal aid nonprofits, a mistake that could cost them down the line.
You also may qualify for help from some organizations and not qualify for help from others. For instance, some organizations permit clients to earn more than their other clients and still receive help if the client who earns more is a senior, veteran, or victim of domestic abuse. Some legal aid organizations have waiting lists, while others do not.
Getting Help from Legal Aid in New York City
Each legal aid nonprofit has a different way of serving clients. Most of the organizations provide what’s called “unbundled legal assistance.” This means that you will work with an attorney to review the bankruptcy forms that you file with the court, but you will file your bankruptcy on your own or “pro se”. This form of assistance is called “unbundled” because the document review that the attorney provides is unbundled from the attorney showing up with you in court.
Most legal aid organizations in New York City provide unbundled assistance because it enables them to help more people. They limit their time and energy to the most important part of the bankruptcy process, preparing and reviewing your bankruptcy forms, making sure that the forms are ready for court. Preparing the actual forms is hard part. Delivering the forms to the court and showing up for your 341 meeting may be scary because you’re entering court without a lawyer at your side, but they don't require specialized legal knowledge. In fact, 341 meetings generally last five to ten minutes, during which the trustee asks you basic questions about your finances even folks with a lawyer have to answer themselves.
The New York City Bankruptcy Courts
Manhattan and the Bronx are part of the Southern District of New York. The bankruptcy courthouse for the Southern District is located at One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004. If you live in Manhattan or the Bronx, chances are that you’ll come here for your 341 meeting. Here is the website for the Southern District of New York: https://www.nysb.uscourts.gov/. This court also has a Free Legal Clinic for folks filing bankruptcy without an attorney.
Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island are all part of the Eastern District of New York. The bankruptcy courthouse is located at 271-C Cadman Plaza East, Brooklyn, NY 11201-1800. The court website is http://www.nyeb.uscourts.gov/. The Eastern District of New York’s bankruptcy courthouse is special because it has a pro se clerk located in it. This clerk is hired by the court to provide information to anyone who needs it for free. If you want information about bankruptcy, you should not hesitate to reach out to the pro se law clerk.
It's important to know what the pro se law clerk, or any law clerk for that matter, can't help you do. Law clerks are not allowed to provide legal advice. You can't go to a law clerk with your bankruptcy forms and ask them to look over the forms to make sure they are okay. The law clerk that you submit your bankruptcy forms to can tell you if you have all the paperwork required for a bankruptcy.
Remember that the clerks are neutral. They are neither on your side nor the side of your creditors. If you walk into a courthouse and have trouble finding the location of the clerk’s office or your 341 meeting, you should ask the security officers at the door of the court. They interact with anxious people everyday and are used to dealing with individuals who are under stress.
- U.S. Courts. (2020, July). 2019-2020 Bankruptcy Filings. Bankruptcy Filings Fall 11.8% for Year Ending June 30, 2020. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from https://www.uscourts.gov/news/2020/07/29/bankruptcy-filings-fall-118-percent-year-ending-june-30