Who Are PFJ Advocates?

PFJ Advocates are recent college graduates who commit to a transformative two-year public service experience.  Advocates must hold at least a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and be able to demonstrate a commitment to working in the public interest.  To ensure that they have the maturity and initiative required to help community members solve critical problems, Advocates are selected through a rigorous process that includes a written application, interview, and immersive case scenarios.  Our Advocates have a broad range of motivations and interests, and the Advocate experience offers strong, community-rooted preparation for a wide variety of career paths, including politics, social work, teaching, the arts, the law – or wherever their passion may take them.

What Does the Advocate Role Entail?

Each Advocate is placed in a PFJ “host city” for the entirety of their two-year commitment. We begin the two-year term with an intensive training program, and are proud to be partnered with the best trainers in the nation on holistic work.

Following our initial intensive training, Advocates are placed in a partnering public defenders’ office, where they assist community members in solving a variety of problems that could range from enrolling in benefits programs to preventing eviction to property retrieval (see What Services Do Advocates Provide? below).  Advocates are placed in teams, working individually with clients but collectively to foster partnerships, streamline processes, and creatively make positive change in their host communities. Advocates work as an employee of the public defenders’ office, under the supervision of attorneys within that office.  They are also connected with PFJ’s network of civil, family, and immigration attorneys, as well as local community organizations.   

Who Are PFJ’s Clients?

PFJ aims to help any community member in need. While many community programs are intended to support certain populations (such as veterans, victims of crime, clients of a given hospital, religious groups, or individuals without housing), we believe that it should be easy to get help when you need it, regardless of your affiliation or identity.  Clients range from those already involved with the legal system to people who have never entered a courthouse.  Advocates take referrals from the public defenders with whom they work, but will also conduct outreach within their local community places like community centers, schools, churches, veterans’ centers, libraries, and shelters, and, pending capacity and freedom from legal conflicts, offer assistance to as many folks as we can.

PFJ clients tend to be low-income people facing issues that do not yet require legal assistance, but can be difficult to tackle and can have devastating consequences if not addressed.  For example, a client may be a mother trying to prepare for a visit from Child Services so her kids can stay at home or a father who needs to keep his driver’s license to make it to work and keep his family in their apartment.  It could be the grandmother whose grandson was arrested with drugs while living with her and is now facing eviction from public housing.  These are just a few of many wide-ranging examples.

What Services Do Advocates Provide?

Advocates are not lawyers, and do not provide legal representation or legal advice.  However, Advocates provide an array of services that do not require a license to practice law.  PFJ Advocates are trained to be interdisciplinary problem solvers so that they can holistically support community members to resolve complex, intersecting issues.  However, PFJ services often fall into six categories:

  • Health & Benefits: Assisting with applications for medical benefits, food stamps, and similar programs, and placing and supporting clients in need of specialized mental health and addiction treatment programs

  • Property: Negotiating with police to prevent property forfeiture, or retrieve property after arrest or other police contact

  • Family: Supporting interactions with Child Services, including planning and preparing for home visits

  • Employment: Working with employers to prevent termination of employment, aiding clients in clearing past convictions to become more employable, connecting clients in need of employment counsel with resources and further legal aid

  • Housing: Negotiating with landlords to avoid eviction, assisting clients at risk of homelessness, seeking housing resources for those in need, seeking counsel for clients wrongfully terminated from housing

  • Immigration: Gathering necessary documents to prevent or fight deportation and detention

With each client, the Advocate begins by working with the client to identify their needs and then develop a plan to address the challenges they are facing.  Frequently, an Advocate’s work may take them into the field.  For example, an Advocate may visit a client’s home to prepare for a child custody interview or meet with a landlord to discuss keeping the client in their home.

What Training and Support Do Advocates Receive?

PFJ Advocates go through an intensive training at the beginning of their two-year service commitment. We partner with top trainers across the country, including Bronx Defenders, where non-attorneys are routinely aiding clients with a similar range of services.  Advocates combine classroom learning on the advocate role, best practices, and PFJ policies with role-playing, creative problem solving, negotiation strategies, and effective communication skills—we even do a storytelling workshop to maximize each Advocate’s narrative power.  Advocates receive specialized training from clinical specialists in recognizing and understanding the symptoms of common mental health concerns and addiction, seeking out treatment opportunities that are tailored to clients’ needs, and supporting clients in completion of mental health and addiction treatment programs. They shadow non-attorney advocates working in our existing sites and meet with attorneys and experts familiar with the practice of civil, family, and immigration advocacy.  They work with experts to gain an ability to spot civil legal issues in a variety of contexts. A special emphasis is placed on avoiding the unauthorized practice of law throughout training.  The host offices leaders join the Advocate teams for a portion of the training, learning how best to work holistically with non-attorney Advocates, and how they can team up for greatest impact in their home districts.

Once Advocates begin their placement, lawyers within the host public defenders’ office supervise their work, providing guidance and assistance where needed.  Where outside legal representation is required, Advocates will refer clients to a network of pro bono attorneys established by PFJ and strengthened by each successive cohort of Advocates.  Occasionally, an Advocate may be supervised by outside counsel when working on a civil matter for a client. Advocates also maintain relationships with and make referrals to community organizations that provide direct services to community members, such as substance abuse counseling, financial education, or emergency food or housing assistance.  Advocates receive regular support, biweekly check-ins, and mentorship from PFJ’s national team.

What Happens If A Case Is Too Complex For A Non-Attorney Advocate?

If a client’s case requires legal representation beyond that available within the host office, PFJ Advocates are connected to our network of pro bono attorneys, as well as with the public defenders supervising their daily work.  This means that Advocates have the ability to work with attorneys when necessary, but are also trained and empowered to solve clients’ non-legal (but vital) issues flexibly and creatively without the need for legal intervention.  Our aim is for Advocates to solve problems as effectively as possible, whether that means addressing the problem themselves or quickly recognizing when outside counsel or another referral is needed.

How Are Host Offices Selected?

PFJ considers both the community context and the environment of the local public defenders’ office in deciding to partner with a host office.  We look for communities in need based on a combination of demographic factors, policing and incarceration trends, existing services, and other data.  Public defenders’ offices that host PFJ Advocates must have an interest in holistic practice and the capacity to provide adequate supervision.  We seek to place Advocates in communities where they are likely to have the greatest impact, although our aim is to eventually place Advocates in as many US cities as we can.  We also receive requests from cities who hope to bring our Advocates into their system and work with us on increasing access to justice.  When PFJ places Advocates in a host office, we consider it a long-term commitment and we will work closely with the host office and community to make it a successful partnership.

Why Work With Public Defenders?

At PFJ, our goal is to reach out to those community members most in need.  Often, people who manage to make it to the office of a local civil attorney or Legal Aid are more able to seek out help than the people served by the public defenders’ office.  By partnering with public defenders, PFJ can reach a clientele who have civil, family, and immigration needs, but don’t know where to get help.

Additionally, people who are involved with the criminal justice system often face “collateral” needs that are rarely addressed through the criminal justice system and which public defenders do not have the mandate or funding to solve.  A court case is never simply one case, but can have branching, dangerous consequences in many areas of a person’s life.  By working with public defenders, PFJ Advocates can help the defenders take on a holistic practice that recognizes the multifaceted nature of their clients’ needs.

What Do We Mean By “Access To Justice”?

When people think of “access to justice”, they often imagine a person walking up the courthouse steps or being given an opportunity to speak before a judge.  When we talk about access to justice, the meaning goes far beyond the courthouse walls.  

Justice, as we conceive of it, is the opportunity to have a voice within the systems that impact our lives.  Whether speaking up for one’s rights as a tenant in housing court or simply filing the right form to get food stamps, all forms of interaction with these vital systems constitute “access to justice.”   

A person is deprived of access when they are rendered voiceless.  This can be because they don’t know where to get help, don’t know what rights they have, don’t know how to begin seeking a remedy, or simply don’t know that a given problem can be solved.  It may also be due to barriers like language, economic cost, or time required.  By helping clients identify these issues and find solutions—whether inside or outside the courthouse—we create access to justice for all members of a community.

How Can This Work Impact Mass Incarceration?

Research indicates that whether a person is growing up in a high-risk, highly-policed neighborhood or returning home from incarceration and trying to reenter her community, the most statistically effective way to prevent that person from ending up behind bars is to ensure she has access to the things she needs the most: housing, work, and community connections.

Nearly all incarcerated people will return home to their communities and over half are gravely at risk of cycling back to prison within a handful of years.  Research shows that offering returning community members a stable landing can significantly reduce their chance of returning to prison, especially when vital factors like work, housing, and support are in place.

Based on what we know about the factors that put people at risk of incarceration, we believe that early interventions are the best way to prevent incarceration before it happens, lower recidivism rates, and increase the chances that a person at risk of incarceration will be given an alternative path.

How Can I Get Involved?

If you would like to host PFJ Advocates in your office, would like to become an Advocate, or would just like to learn more about PFJ, feel free to email us at galvin@partnersforjustice.org or solow@partnersforjustice.org. If you’d like to have a handy packet to send to a friend, you can download our materials here.