Danny Greenberg oral history, 2018

Ran Legal Aid Society of NY. Served on SCLAID. Directed Clinical Programs at Harvard Law School. Pro bono partner at NYC law firm.

Oral history details

Storyteller: Danny Greenberg
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: May 11, 2018
Where relates to: Massachusetts and Nevada
Topics: American Bar Association (ABA), Civil legal aid: General, and Pro bono
Law type: Civil
Collection: NEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video):
Length: 0:58:52

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with Danny Greenberg
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 10, 2018

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Danny Greenberg. It’s taken in San Diego, California at the Equal Justice Conference on May 10, 2018. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library. Let’s start with a short review of your history, where you grew up, where you went to college and law school, and the various jobs you’ve had, and then we’re going to come back and talk in detail about all of that.

Danny Greenberg:
Okay. So, I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I was born in 1945. I went to public schools in Brooklyn through high school and then to Brooklyn College, which was a free school. I still lived at home during college. Then Columbia Law School. My first job out of law school was as an elementary school teacher in Harlem. It was considered a vital activity during a time that the Vietnam War was going on. I was young when I graduated from law school, and it was a draft deferment. I did that and then I started in legal services on the Lower East Side at what was then called Mobilization For Youth, MFY Legal Services, in 1971. I did that for 17 years.

Danny Greenberg:
I became the managing attorney of my office after a year and a half, stayed there until I met the woman who would become my wife, and I moved to Boston to be with her. Then I started at Harvard Law School running its clinical programs. I did that for seven years until I was recruited back to New York City to run the Legal Aid Society. I ran Legal Aid from 1994 to 2004. I spent a year after that at NYU Law School as a visitor from practice, and in 2005 created a job as special counsel for pro bono services at Schulte Roth & Zabel, a major New York City law firm.
Alan Houseman:
What factors led you after law school and teaching to go to MFY Legal Services? Family, religion, people you met in law school, or other?

Danny Greenberg:
I think that I always wanted to be a lawyer. I think when I was a youngster and I would argue with people and fight with people, they would say to me, “What are you going to be? A lawyer?” And thought to myself on some semi-conscious level, “Oh my god, there’s a profession where you could just never stop talking and fight with people. This sound like a good way to make a living.” And another real factor was I grew up in Brooklyn when the Brooklyn Dodgers were playing at Ebbets Field. That was really four blocks from where I lived. I went to many, many games. I saw Jackie Robinson play, and Jackie Robinson was the first African American allowed into the big leagues, and there was a real pride for those of us in Brooklyn about that. The Yankees always won, but they were lily white and they were rich, and we were underdogs and we didn’t win. But we had Jackie Robinson.

Danny Greenberg:
Years later, it was a great metaphor for a legal services lawyer in a way. You feel righteous, you do the right thing, you have the right values, and you don’t always win. But it’s important. So, that’s a little bit maybe … It really was a predicate, and then I was in law school … Again, I always wanted to be a lawyer. I wrote a letter to Justice Hugo Black when I was in high school about an argument I’d had with one of my teachers around freedom of speech. In law school I was on the Columbia campus in 1968 when the police came in to get people out of buildings. I was chased by them. It was the heart of the civil rights movement. It was the heart of an activist movement. I don’t think I ever wanted to do anything other than essentially become the kind of lawyer that I did.

Alan Houseman:
So, describe a little bit of MFY Legal Services, and then talk about some of your advocacy activities there as well achievements as managing attorney, a little bit of information about your time there, and the important of it.

Danny Greenberg:
Well, it was an incredibly significant time. In New York City in the early 70s, you have to remember there really wasn’t legal services as a widespread matter. MFY, Mobilization For Youth, was a social services organization on the Lower East Side. It was Ford Foundation funded, and they created a legal services unit. They decided that there could be some lawyers who were helpful to social workers. It actually became the predicate for the OEO program and later the Legal Services program, because Ford funded it. Some of the really great leaders in Legal Services, some of the earliest legal services lawyers were people who were my mentors when I got out of law school and started in this program. It was very neighborhood-based. There were five offices that were within about a mile square area, and it really came out of the vision of legal services being in the community, and I loved that very much.

Danny Greenberg:
I was in an office a block from where my grandfather came to this country. The Lower East Side is about as diverse as it could be. My office had a sign outside in English, Spanish, Chinese, Yiddish and Italian, because we served all of those old communities. Years later I look back on it, I sometimes say that I was probably the most successful legal services lawyer in history, because there aren’t many poor people left on the Lower East Side. It’s become an area of enormous gentrification. I always used to say I wanted to wipe out poverty from the East River to Third Avenue and down to Canal Street, and I guess we succeeded in a way that an O. Henry story might think was important.

Danny Greenberg:
But it was very much a part of the community, and I think it’s a vision that has some resurrection these days. It was a notion that lawyers were adjuncts to community organizing. When you ask about successful matters, there was a law reform unit. Out of my office, Goldberg v. Kelly was litigated. Mr. Goldberg was the Commissioner of Social Services. Mr. Kelly was a client of the Delancey Street office a year or two before I got there. The brilliance I think of the model was that you found out what were the problems of the community by being neighborhood-based, and then we had a law reform unit that aggregated the problems into bringing test cases. We were some of the first people to go into family court.

Danny Greenberg:
When I met you, Alan, years and years ago, we were both doing family law work. But we saw that because we knew the community had welfare problems. We knew they had housing problems. We knew about consumer problems. But they were also saying that the Bureau of Child Welfare was coming in and taking their children away. So we adapted our work to doing that kind of advocacy for families. So, we were very much involved. I was very much involved, not being in the law reform unit, very much involved in the day-to-day activity, in housing court, family court, every single day with any number of cases, preparing them well, and doing motions and doing the kind of lawyering that the judges weren’t used to.

Alan Houseman:
Who were some of your mentors?

Danny Greenberg:
Well, they may be names not well known outside of New York, but there was a man named Lester Evans who came out of private practice and into Legal Services. He was older than we were. He had an enormous passion and taught us fidelity to clients. He used to say that your job in the courtroom was to be a lightening rod that otherwise the power of the court would come onto your client, and you were a lightening rod to get that and then to insulate your client from it. Margaret Taylor, who was an early legal services lawyer, she like Lester went on to become a judge. She became a family court judge. Lester became a civil court judge. I knew just tangentially Steve Wizner, who went on to head Yale’s clinical program. I was coming just as he was leaving. He later became a very close friend. But I looked within to those people, and then as I say, I had these heroes outside. I believe strongly in civil rights and in civil liberties and the great jurists of the time. They were all very important to me.

Alan Houseman:
I think you mentioned why you went to Boston with your wife as I recall. Describe the clinical program at Harvard and how it functioned and what you were doing there and what some of your achievements were.

Danny Greenberg:
Well, the clinical program at Harvard was the vision and brainchild of the late Gary Bellow — he passed away some years ago — and his wife Jeanne Charn. What was so compelling for me — in fact what I think let them hire me, notwithstanding the fact that I didn’t have an academic background — was that Gary’s vision was different than a lot of other places. I’ll juxtapose them in its purist form. We had a man named Tony Amsterdam who ran the NYU clinics, and he created some enormously powerful law reform centers. Tony was a brilliant, anti-death penalty capital punishment lawyer, and you had these great clinics that brought test cases. Having come out of legal services in California, CRLA, Gary’s vision was 99% of the students who graduate Harvard Law School are going to go into big law firms. They don’t need to do elite cases. They need to meet poor people. They need to understand poor people’s problems, and what he did in almost a literal sense was he went to Greater Boston Services, and he bought their legal services office.

Danny Greenberg:
He bought the Jamaica Plain office. He said, “I will populate it with paralegals and lawyers. We will have dozens, hundreds, of law students pass through clinics taking housing court cases, taking family court cases, taking lower court cases, going to the homes of poor people. We will try to affect the practice by showing how practice can be done if it’s done correctly, and exposing our students to these lower courts.” And in some ways, it never caught on. People felt you can’t give law students that many cases. Gary felt that they should have a real caseload. They should understand how to balance their work with their cases. It’s a model that has not been followed, but I think was a really important and sustained model that continues. The vast majority of students who go through Harvard Law School actually take some clinical course.

Alan Houseman:
Describe the Legal Aid Society, describe your role, talk a little bit about what happened in 9/11, and the problems that came to the Legal Aid Society, and your accomplishments or anything else you want to talk about.

Danny Greenberg:
Okay, so the Legal Aid Society is the oldest provider of legal services to poor people in the country. It is not the Legal Aid Society of New York City or New York state, it is the Legal Aid Society. There never was one before, and anyone afterwards needed to add the jurisdiction they were in. It’s by now nearly 150 years old. It is the product of the great law firms in New York feeling the importance of functioning legal services for poor people, and so the board consisted of the managing partners of almost all of the major law firms in New York City.

Danny Greenberg:
I was a somewhat anomalous choice for them. I was a member of the National Lawyers Guild, the Bar Association of Progressive Lawyers, much more than for example the American Bar Association. I was myself a legal services lawyer. It was a demographic that hadn’t usually been picked to be the head of the society, but it was also a time in which the staff and management were going through one of their periodic strikes. A lot of dissension, a lot of anger, a very very bad mayor, Mayor Giuliani, a conservative governor, Governor Pataki, both of whom slashed funding for legal aid. In my family, we refer to Rudy Giuliani as “he who must not be named,” because of his animus toward poor people in general, people of color, and legal aid as an institution that worked for them. So, it was a tumultuous time.

Danny Greenberg:
I took over a month after the strike in the middle of the year, $9 million of a $79 million contract had been slashed. When I applied for the job, and this is relevant to both my accomplishments and my lack of them later, I said very specifically to the board that was going to hire, I have a really nice life in Boston. My family is there. It’s easy in some ways being the director of clinical programs at a great institution. I want to have this job in New York if you let me repair some of the damage between management and staff. If I come on, I will not look at the unions as enemies. The unions are the people who do our work. They’re the people who care at least as much as all of you do about the work. They work for less money than they could otherwise make. If you choose me, you should understand that I am going to break down barriers, and I’m going to break down barriers between the different parts.

Danny Greenberg:
Legal Aid is the largest organization of its kind in probably the world. It had a thousand lawyers. It has a civil branch that does traditional legal services. It had a law reform unit, prisoners’ rights unit, a very very large criminal defense unit — we were basically the public defender in New York City — a juvenile rights division that represented the children in family court. They all were like silos, they didn’t talk to each other, and I said this not the way to do it. Clients don’t walk in with a pigeon-holed problem. I want to try to bring everybody together, and when they chose me, we embarked on doing that. So the best accomplishments are that they actually broke that down. That my vision for not having a distinction between criminal defense that did the criminal court cases and the appeals unit, that’s broken down. There’s a civil unit that works closely with volunteer division, that distinction broke down. We accomplished that kind of an internal structure. It was a very difficult time because our funding kept being cut and cut and cut, and we had real issues around the ability to staff. But I think that it continued its really great tradition of providing services.

Danny Greenberg:
9/11 created some very significant challenges in New York City. In an ironic way, one of the things that happened was that it was a moment in time in which the city and the community came together to understand problems that poor people were having. It was in some ways in the immediate aftermath, a time of enormous hope. One example is that access to Medicaid was vastly expanded. Basically anybody that had medical issues was having them approved for Medicaid if they were poor within days rather than the long waiting periods that always happen. There were a variety of services set up, community-based, all over the city for people who were affected by it.

Danny Greenberg:
I wound up at one point going on Fox News and going on The O’Reilly Factor of all things and talking about how legal aid was a place that their listeners could come to for help. I was invited on because there was a report that we were defending the terrorists in our criminal division, and I went on and said point blank, “Yeah, we have a criminal division. It actually isn’t defending those cases, but even if it were, people deserve lawyers. But the civil part is what does the fundraising, and you, O’Reilly, should tell your viewers.” And he said at the end of my talk, he said, “I’m buying it, Greenberg, more liberals like you should come on my show. We’re going to do it.” So, it was a time I think the city came together in an important way.

Danny Greenberg:
The Ford Foundation gave us a $1 million grant to continue that kind of work, and the staff was amazingly attuned to it. Our main office was across the street from the World Trade Center, literally, and an engine of the airplane landed on the roof and broke a hole through into our top floor of the post office building. I was at a conference up in Albany that day and wasn’t there, but the staff was heroic. As in many federal buildings, in the downstairs there was a newsstand, and blind people, disabled people always got the contracts to do it. One of the legal aid lawyers took the people who worked there home by subway that afternoon after what happened to make sure that they were safe. We were out of our building for a long time and relocated. People were generous about helping us during that time. So, it was a moment as in many that are born in crisis that brings people together in ways that one almost wishes could remain as a model and instead dissipates, unfortunately when the crisis passes.

Alan Houseman:
By the way, I was at that conference in Albany, and I remember you getting on the train to go back to New York City.

Danny Greenberg:
Yeah, yeah.

Alan Houseman:
So, how would you assess your overall direction of the Legal Aid Society before we move onto NYU and others?

Danny Greenberg:
I think it’s an extraordinary organization. I think that to this day it attracts newer lawyers who are really committed to what the work is. It’s free of legal services funding, so it has the autonomy to do the things it needs to do. It’s always been vibrant in understanding emerging issues. There’s an important immigration unit there now. There’s a prisoners’ rights unit. I think that because it has the backing of the private firms in New York, it is seen as their charity. It always has a special place in the world, and it’s always had terrific leadership.

Danny Greenberg:
The person who took over after me is a man named Steve Banks, who had done most of the homeless cases in New York and had a nationwide reputation, and Steve is now in the de Blasio Administration, where he helped engineer the access to lawyers. That’s such an important part of government funding, that any poor person in court with incomes in a family under $49,000 will get a free lawyer funded by the city of New York. So, I think it’s created great leaders. It mines great leaders, and I think it will have a powerful future as it always has.
Alan Houseman:
So, after you left there, you went to NYU, right?

Danny Greenberg:
I went as a visitor for a year. I was trying to figure out what to do. The funding had really caught up with us. It became clear to me that if there were new leadership, there would be better relationships with the city of New York. And so I went to the board and tendered a resignation. I spent a year at NYU and it was what I hoped it would be. It was a chance to sort of think about things, try to put thing together that I had done in my life, try to figure out on a personal level what was going to be next for me. I got to work with the clinical program, which notwithstanding my saying it was somewhat different than Harvard’s, has some of the most extraordinary lawyers around. Bryan Stevenson was running his capital unit out of that. Marty Guggenheim is a national leader on family law issues. These were people who I knew before I got there, but the chance to interact with them on a daily basis was just a joy.
Alan Houseman:
And just to make it clear on the record, Bryan Stevenson just opened up the…

Danny Greenberg:
Legacy Museum.

Alan Houseman:
Among other things.

Danny Greenberg:
And then just to bring things to the next stage, which I know you’ll ask me about, it was my law firm that did the intellectual property rights pro bono for Bryan Stevenson opening up his legacy firm, because that’s sort of the model that we have of doing pro bono work.

Alan Houseman:
So, what led you to go to the law firm, and what do you do there, and how does it work?

Danny Greenberg:
Well, when I left Legal Aid, it was clear to me that I wanted to continue to interact with the communities that I cared about, and I wanted to do it on a level that was going to be useful to where I was going to go. So I started to think about places that I could go. I could go to foundations. I knew the people who ran the Soros Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, and that was one possibility, and I spoke with them, and I thought that law schools again might take me to do something specific.

Danny Greenberg:
But it had always been a part of my consciousness when I was at the Legal Aid Society, the role that great law firms play in the delivery of services to poor people, and the institutions that they serve. And I started to think about what I could bring to a law firm as well as what a law firm could do that would be interesting to me, and I knew the law firms in New York. Again, almost all of them had somebody on the board of the Legal Aid Society, and I wanted to pick a place that I thought would be open. I came there a dozen years ago. There were and are some great law firm pro bono people. Ron Tabak at Skadden is a legend for what he does around capital work, and other firms have always done important things.

Danny Greenberg:
I think that what’s interesting and a change, Alan, from when you and I were in law school to today is that there was a time when law firms were the only repository of being able to do great kinds of work. At least in New York you think about an Arthur Lyman at Paul, Weiss. You think about a Bob McCrea down at Sullivan. You think of Bob McKay and you think of Cyrus Vance, and what happened with our generation was that our generation actually founded full-time organizations that did some of the things that only law firms used to do.

Danny Greenberg:
When you got out of law school, when I got out of law school, we could probably name the places where somebody who was public interest minded could go to work full-time. There was the ACLU, there were the local chapters. There was the NAACP Inc. Fund. Maybe there were a half a dozen more. Think about the proliferation over the years. The NOW Legal Defense Fund, LAMBDA Legal Defense Fund, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the Brennan Center, and the Innocence Project. All of these are places that have developed over the last 30 or 40 years, and more and more, people went to those organizations rather than law firms to be able to do good works.

Danny Greenberg:
And so what I found when I left Legal Aid was that the law firms had people who were in charge of pro bono, but for the most part they were not people who came out of a legal services background. They were not people who had done the kind of work that I had done. They were very good people. They were not only well meaning, they did good jobs. They were for the most part kind of associates in the firm who then went on and did this work rather than the billable work, and they were people who came out of that.

Danny Greenberg:
I went to the law firm I did because one of the partners had headed the Legal Aid board. I suggested to them what I thought was a really different model. I realized when I ran the Legal Aid Society that almost always when I had an issue, I went to the big firms to be co-counsel with us or be experts for us on the mission of our poor clients. Of course that’s not only valuable, that’s one of the most important roles a great law firm can play. And those law firms through our volunteer division sent people to do work for the Legal Aid Society for legal services in New York to do work for those clients, and that was going to happen no matter what.

Danny Greenberg:
But what I realized when I ran Legal Aid was that I was not only the executive director of a public interest organization, which I thought was going to take 90% of my time, I was also the CEO of a major business, and I had no preparation to be a business person. I had eschewed it my entire life. I didn’t like it. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on staff internally who would do “the business.” I turned to law firms in an ad hoc way. We might have a problem with the Queens civil office on their lease. So I’d say, “Please raise your hand if your firm is willing to do a lease for us,” and I’d get some pro bono service. But there was no rigorous way.

Danny Greenberg:
And so what I said to the firm was, “You should hire me, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you. I’ll help you recruit. I ran Legal Aid, you could talk about that. I’ll help doing training, because I ran a clinical program. But mostly what I’m going to do is in your law firm, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. 20% of the firm is litigators. They go to court, they take on test cases, they do amicus briefs. All the rest of your firm feels that it has no role, because they’re not asked to do something.

Danny Greenberg:
“Conversely, the organizations that I know, some of whom I just named, they’re my friends. I’m going to say to them, ‘I will give you, what would be a model of you getting a general counsel to do the business part of your work.'” And so as a concrete example, I brought in my friend Laurel Eisner who ran Sanctuary for Families, one of the largest domestic victim organizations in the city. I put her in a room with the partners who ran the various practice areas. I said to her, “My real estate people will look at all of your leases for your shelter sites and make sure that your leases are what they should be. My intellectual property lawyers will look at your website, and they’re see about those things. My M&A lawyers will look at contracts that you have with the various providers to make sure the contracts have limited liability and aren’t too onerous on you. My employment people will work with you anytime you hire or fire and make sure that you’re set. My insurance people will make sure you have enough D&O insurance. My litigators, of course, they’ll go to family court and help your cases, and my finance people will look at the way you’re structured and see if you get defunded in one area whether we can keep you harmless by setting up sub corporations so that your funding is intact. I will give you the entire firm.”

Danny Greenberg:
What does the firm get from it? Well suddenly, you have a real estate lawyer doing pro bono. Suddenly on an ongoing basis, you have M&A lawyers who are looking at contracts, and when your clients are the people that I knew in Boston, Partners in Health and Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl, will come down and say thank you, and the partners’ kids have all read Mountains Beyond Mountains, and they want to do that. Somebody who is in a corporate structure can do work for the Innocence Project and Barry Scheck will come by and say thank you. It was an extraordinary opportunity to give to these organizations that work with my Legal Services clients. The organizations that do social justice work, all this ability to have the best lawyers in the country keep them out of trouble at the same time that my law firm gets to have all these people do pro bono who literally said, “I’m not going to court for anybody. That’s why I’m an IM lawyer, that’s why I’m doing hedge funds.”

Danny Greenberg:
So it’s a model that I suggested in one of those wonderful moments. John Kennedy is reputed to have said that he was shocked when he got to Washington to find things were as bad as he said they were. I have the opposite. I was a little bit shocked to find that this model in my head, which made so much sense, which I pitched to get the job, actually has worked as well as it has. We probably have now without exaggeration, 50 of the most interesting organizations in New York and throughout the country that we consider to be clients in an institutional sense as well as in an ambition driven sense.

Alan Houseman:
You talked a little bit about what Steve Banks had done. You talked little bit about the right to counsel in housing courts.

Danny Greenberg:
When I started in Legal Services, half the battle that we had was going into court to convince a judge why there should be a lawyer there at all. We’re talking 1971 in family court. The judges think that they’re doing what’s good for children and families, why in the world are we muddying this stuff up with motions and arguments and legal and cites and appeals? I think it’s now understood clearly in legal services throughout the country that poor people have a right to have a lawyer present. Now in and of itself, that’s an accomplishment that Legal Aid and Legal Services did over the years. I think the right to counsel we always felt from the earliest time was part of our advocacy and part of what we needed to do as community-based lawyers. We needed to convince courts to expand that right. In New York we got the right to counsel in family court cases before there was any such right on any kind of a national level or even close to a national level.

Danny Greenberg:
So, we’ve always been somewhat successful. Andy Scherer, the long time coordinator of housing at the Community Action for Legal Services, the umbrella of Legal Services, had really had a right to counsel in his mind for years. He litigated a case and went to the highest court and there was no constitutional right to do that. So he just kept at it now as a law professor, and he with a number of other people secured this right to counsel. And the arguments are the ones that we’ve been saying for 40 years. You’re going to save money on homelessness. You’re going to save money in the school system. You’re going to create better outcomes for families. You’re going to prevent people from losing their jobs.

Danny Greenberg:
I have a story from my first days as a Legal Services lawyer. To make it much shorter than it was, I was in court and in one of my first cases beat a very old landlord’s lawyer who had been around forever. I used to joke that he served the dispossess on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, that he was there that long ago. When I won the case — on what he would have called “a technicality,” and what I would have said was a “jurisdictional defect” — when I went outside and was ready for his assault on me, he pinched my cheek like I was his nephew at Thanksgiving. He called me a commie, and told me how much he loved me.

Danny Greenberg:
When I confronted him as to why that would be, he said to me, “Greenberg, you don’t understand the first thing about the economics down here. I used to charge a landlord $25 or $50 bucks to kick somebody out of the house, and then you guys come along with your motions and your depositions and you’re beating me in court on this technicality. Now I turn to my clients and I say, I want $2000 at the onset, it’s probably going to cost you $5000 by the time he finishes with his jury trial. Greenberg, you made me a rich man.” And I went outside and had a real crisis of what we were doing, but the point that in an ironic way, the private bar, and I’m not talking about the law firms, I’m talking about the day-to-day struggling lawyers on the line, they actually don’t hate the fact that there are going to be lawyers for poor people in housing court in New York.

Danny Greenberg:
It’s going to mean they’re going to get a lot more money from their landlord clients fighting these cases instead of having tenants just roll over in the court room. The city is going to save money, because there are going to be fewer people in shelters. There are going to be few families dislocated. All of the arguments that we’ve made for years under a progressive Democrat and a progressive city council actually came to fruition. But I don’t think it’s an anomalous position. I think there are allies out there in a lot of places that can help other places take the model that New York has and do it.

Danny Greenberg:
I’ll just say one other PS about my law firm. We litigated in upstate New York a case called Hurrell-Harring v. the State of New York. It was about the lack of lawyers in upstate New York, five New York counties, the lack of lawyers even at arraignment, 55 years after Gideon. My firm put in 40 thousand hours doing that case, $19 million in time, $3 million out of pocket costs winning that case and getting a settlement that now is going to be implemented. I say that to say that, even if one wins a right to a lawyer, one can’t think of that as the end of the process. The criminal court system tells us that there are lawyers available but they are underfunded, sometimes ill trained with monstrous caseloads. Unless you’re on guard to make sure that those things don’t happen, somebody in court standing next to a lawyer from Legal Services with a caseload that is too onerous to allow for motions and other kind of work shouldn’t be seen as the goal of right to counsel.

Alan Houseman:
You were on the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (SCLAID) for awhile.

Danny Greenberg:
I was.

Alan Houseman:
Just describe what that is and some of the things you were involved with it.

Danny Greenberg:
So SCLAID is the oldest standing committee of the American Bar Association. It has jurisdiction over both criminal and civil legal services and goes back to the early 1920s. As Alan said, this interview is being done at a joint NLADA-ABA convention so I’ll say this a tiny bit mutely. I spent most of my legal career avoiding the ABA. I had been involved in a lot in bar association work, but it was always with the National Lawyers Guild. The National Lawyers Guild was founded as an alternative to the ABA when the ABA wouldn’t take in Black members back in the 30s. The Guild was the bulwark of defending those accused by McCarthyism during the 50s. It remains today essentially the left-wing progressive bar association. I was president of the city chapter of that organization from 1985 to 1987. It was where I always wanted to put my work, and I really didn’t join many committees of the city bar or the ABA. Understanding their importance on the one hand, very important, on the other hand, it just didn’t move me to want to be it.

Danny Greenberg:
And one year at one of these NLADA conventions, right after Legal Aid, when I was now in the law firm, Terry Brooks came up to me, and he said, “I think you would be an important member of SCLAID. It’s a standing committee. You have a background. You’re respected in the profession. I want you to apply to be a member.” So I did, and I spent two years on SCLAID. I found it very meaningful and very important. I think I played an important role there, which was one which was in some ways consistent with my Legal Aid background.

Danny Greenberg:
I’ll give you one example. Each year SCLAID has to recommend an amount of money for the Legal Services Corporation budget. In all the years before when Legal Services asked for a one or two percent raise, particularity in the bad climate of the Bush years and certainly in Trump years, SCLAID went along and asked for a one and a half percent. So in the budget, whatever it was, they asked for $2 million more. When I got on the committee, I knew what the funding was when I started in Legal Services. It was in an area first of $140 million. It went up eventually to get stuck around $300 million. I asked what it would be if we took account simply of inflation. Nothing more, and we did the arithmetic, and it came out to be that the budget should be a billion dollars.

Danny Greenberg:
So I said, we should ask for a billion dollars. Everybody on the committee said that that was crazy. I said, we are the committee of the ABA that represents Legal Aid and Legal Services, are we going to get a billion dollars? Of course not. But if we’re going to ask for what we should get, we should ask for a billion dollars. Don’t tell me that it will ruin our credibility. I don’t believe for a second that Congress is sitting there saying, “Oh, SCLAID said they want a 1% increase, let’s give it to them” and if we say we want a billion dollars, they’re going to say, “Well, that’s not going to happen, we’re not going to give them a penny.” We’re an advocacy organization, and the ABA should be out there as an advocacy organization advocating. And I get the politics, we’re not going to get the money. I was ultimately convinced because people even from Legal Services said so. So we sent a compromise letter. The letter said something like, “Were we to ask for what we should get, adjusting for inflation and nothing more, we would be asking for $1 billion. We are not asking for that today, because we recognize, bah, bah, bah, bah …”

Danny Greenberg:
But for me, it was I think an important lesson. I think to move this up a level if we can. We struggle. All of us who’ve been involved our whole lives in this struggle all the time between the goals that we have and being realistic. There’s no lawyer in the world who doesn’t struggle between what they would like and they think is fair, and what they can get from the court. We’re trained to do that. But I also think that as leaders, we need to be trained to keep our eye on larger issues all the time. The notion of saying, “It should be a billion dollars,” is sort of metaphor for saying that, even as we’re realistic and understand what is going to be possible, it’s important for us to keep on stating the reality of a goal, the reality of what we hope for.

Danny Greenberg:
I’ll say one other thing about this. It is after all an oral history of an individual. I’m sometimes asked, particularly by lots of the young lawyers or college and law students that I mentor all the time. I think they often mistake that I’ve done this work because I must be terribly idealistic. And I think that in a deep way I’ve managed to do the things I’ve done because I’m really so cynical about the legal system. What mean by it is when I hear people saying, “The legal system is broken,” I don’t believe it. I think the legal system functions perfectly well for what it wants to do. Family court blames poor parents for bad parenting. Housing court blames poor people for the conditions of their apartments. Criminal court blames people of color for crime, and the court system processes those people rather than giving them due process. And I never had any illusion that it wasn’t working exactly the way it wanted to.

Danny Greenberg:
What I loved about being a lawyer, what I love, present tense, is that the system says it’s fair. It holds itself up as being constitutional. It talks about due process, and it creates an opening for those of us who can to go in and say, “We’re going to hold you to your rhetoric. We know that you don’t behave that way. We know you don’t even want to behave that way. But you say you’re fair. I’m here today to make sure that you are fair.”

Danny Greenberg:
I think that a cynicism that understands the depth of what the problems are allows you to feel terrific anytime you win anything, because in a way you don’t expect it. You’re not someone who’s there and says, “My life’s a failure, because there are still poor people.” You’re someone who’s there who says, “I can’t believe I’ve gotten to help this many people in this system and make these kinds of changes over a period of time. So in a way, low expectations has fueled my ability to have … I’ve always had joy. Not that things weren’t hard, but to always have joy in all the things that I’ve done, that I’ve had a chance to grow and to change, to manage people, to be a leader, to be a line lawyer, to have hundreds and thousands of clients with whom I had relationships. Never measuring at the end whether actually things are better or worse in this area or not. I think the best of us do this because it’s the right thing to do.

Alan Houseman:
I want to focus on your vision for the future. If you could, where do you think the Legal Aid programs and the pro bono components and the pro bono law firms, where do you think we should be pushing? We talked about the right to counsel, the New York City effort, which is unique in some sense-

Danny Greenberg:
Right.

Alan Houseman:
But what do you see as the key directions that we ought to be pursuing?

Danny Greenberg:
Well, I do think about this a lot. Obviously technology, in a way that my generation doesn’t really understand, but that my daughters and their generation understand, the power of technology for good and for not so good. And I think that the parts of the movement that are bringing legal services and access to poor people through that needs to be done. Again, because Legal Aid had such a large criminal court component, and my own law firm did what we did. I don’t think there will ever be universal access to lawyers in the civil arena for everyone, because we haven’t managed to do it for 55 years when there’s a constitutional right for it in criminal cases, and there is a broad consensus in the world, in the country, that people accused of crime deserve to have lawyers and yet we see how poorly it’s funded. So in one way, I think the technology can bridge some of the gap, and that we should accept and understand that we’re never going to have universal access to lawyers.

Danny Greenberg:
I think there are other lessons to be learned from other movements. When Roe v. Wade was decided finally, and a women’s right to choose was enshrined in the Constitution, one of the things that happened was that progressive people stopped organizing around that. We had won a legal right, and we thought that that legal right was therefore enshrined forever. And the opponents of that organized, organized, organized, and eventually took over state legislatures, the Supreme Court, and we know how much danger there is in that. I think that organizing people, not that the lawyers do it, but I think that the organizing of people is an essential component for how lawyers are going to succeed.

Danny Greenberg:
Wearing my optimism hat for a second and not my cynicism, I think in a really ironic way that Donald Trump may be the best long-term outcome of things we value, notwithstanding how awful it is right now and even what he’s doing to the courts. But what I mean is, I see a movement like high school students getting out there about gun control and taking on the most powerfully entrenched lobby in the country, and beginning to succeed. Even if we can’t measure their success today, every march they have and every rally that signs up at age 16 and 17 voters who will then become eligible at age 18, and the vast majority of them are talking about guns as an organizing issue. I think that life is changing.

Danny Greenberg:
I think my children’s generation had no reason to be really political and in the streets during an Obama Administration. But they are now in ways that I and my colleagues in the 60s were organized by a war that we opposed. And I see a movement on the horizon that will wipe this administration out of office and will begin to move toward a progressive agenda. Part of that agenda always has been and always has to be giving poor people access and rights to justice. So, I think that I’m optimistic about that. I think I’m optimistic about where this next generation is going to take us. Part of my answer about Access to Justice is they will figure out ways that I can’t begin to imagine to build on the legacy, Alan, that you’ve created, that the National Equal Justice Library documents, that the people who I respected so much created, and that now we are doing for the next generation.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. I want to follow up, just a couple of things. You’ve won some awards over the years. Are there any one or two of those that meant the most to you? The awards are in your bio, your resume, which is part of the oral history.

Danny Greenberg:
At about the same time, in 2001 right before 9/11, the National Lawyers Guild honored me. As I say, I think of it as a most extraordinary organization. The founders are brave, brave people — even the current generation keeping up progressive laws. So when they honored me at the dinner in 2000 when I had become head of Legal Aid, that was an honor I greatly appreciated.

Danny Greenberg:
The next year, the Federal Bar Council in New York gave me an award. Now you have to understand, the Federal Bar Council is the elite organization. When you look at the list of former recipients of their highest medal, it literally contains the name J. Edgar Hoover and almost everybody else was a senator or a governor. The award, the Emory Buckner Award, is named for the first US Attorney who made his office not political. I know from insiders that the year that I got it, which was the Thanksgiving dinner following 2001, following the September 11 bombing, the main contender for the medal that year was Rudy Giuliani, because he had been the mayor after that. And enough of the people in the Federal Bar Council prevailed to say no, particularly given his other policies before he became “America’s Mayor.” They said that I should get it because I represented, I hope personally some deservedness, but mostly as I said at the dinner, as an honor to Legal Aid, as an honor to the 1,000 lawyers who had stepped up during that crisis in a recognition of their work. And so I think that that was particularly meaningful.

Danny Greenberg:
It was also meaningful to get to talk to 1,500, I keep using the phrase, of the most powerful lawyers in New York City, because this is after all the bar of them. I got to say to them at their Thanksgiving dinner part of my speech as I ended was that all of us would be going to our Thanksgiving dinners. I hoped that they told the story of the first Thanksgiving to their children. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated because a bunch of boat people came to America without any papers at all. They were illegal aliens, and the first thing they did was they went on welfare and they got food stamps from the Native Americans who were here. And today we celebrate that as our most precious holiday. So I don’t want to hear any more about who my clients were. They should tell their children about the founding of America.

Alan Houseman:
Finally, you’ve been on some boards of directors and board of visitors. Do you want to mention any of those experiences besides the National Lawyers Guild, which we talked about?

Danny Greenberg:
I love being on the Board of CUNY Law School. CUNY Law School has as its motto, “Law in the service of human needs.” I got on the board because of a wonderful man named Haywood Burns, who was president of the National Lawyers Guild nationally, and a founder of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. When I went to Harvard, Haywood asked me to be on his board. He was the dean at CUNY back in the 80s. He said that it would be good for CUNY to have somebody from Harvard on its board.

Danny Greenberg:
So, I went on the board and I’ve stayed on the board. It’s a very long service that I’ve had, but the students that CUNY turns out are extraordinary. Almost every other law school in the country turns out four, five, six percent of their students going into public interest. CUNY turns out two-thirds of their students going into it. So, I’m proud to mentor people there. I’m proud to be on the board, and I’m going to continue to serve as long as they want me.

Alan Houseman:
Great. Is there in closing anything else you want to raise or share?

Danny Greenberg:
I would say that I’m delighted to have done this. I consider it an honor, particularly, Alan, when I see the list of people who came before. I should say for those who listen to this, that Alan Houseman and I met each other back in 1976, I believe. We were on opposite sides of a case in the Supreme Court. It had to do with foster families and the right to hearings. I remember my first discussion with Alan where he was quite heated about the fact that we had brought the case in the first place. It evolved into a friendship and the respect that I have for him, and the National Equal Justice Library, and the work that he does. So I just want to say how proud I am to be considered someone who is worthy of his time to have done this interview.


END