Chief Executive Officer, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, White Plains
Most people know the line, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” But fewer realize that the right to legal representation only holds for criminal procedures. In civil cases, there is no constitutional right to an attorney.
That means a person can be threatened with losing their home, their child, their rights to an education, and if they can’t afford to hire a lawyer—they’re on their own.
Enter Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV), overseen by Barbara Finkelstein. LSHV is a nonprofit law firm, providing assistance and legal representation to low-income people in civil cases. Areas of expertise include domestic violence, family law, elder law, children’s advocacy, disabilities law, homelessness prevention, and public benefits.
“When it comes right down to it, having a lawyer makes the difference in maintaining people’s rights,” explains Finkelstein.
Since Finkelstein joined as executive director in 1995 (she was promoted to CEO in 2013), the agency’s budget has increased fivefold to $11 million, with a 100-person staff and eight offices. She is the first woman to lead the organization. Most recently, Finkelstein launched a Veterans and Military Families Advocacy Project to handle the unique mental health and housing challenges of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fighting for equal justice came naturally to Finkelstein, who grew up in Brooklyn, and was the first in her family to go to college. After graduating from Hunter College, she received her JD from Rutgers School of Law and began working at a legal services program for low-income families in Queens.
“I knew immediately those were the people I wanted to help,” she says. “Being a lawyer gives you the authority in this society so you can help make change.”
Finkelstein prides LSHV on delivering the same high-quality legal services that for-profit firms do. The firm represents people with an income up to twice the poverty level—more than half a million people in the Hudson Valley qualify. Finkelstein is also active in a New York State task force to expand civil legal services. “The need,” she says, “is astounding.”