This month it is our pleasure to honor Barry Smolowitz, an attorney who generously offered his leadership and technical skills at just the right time to make a huge difference in the lives of many Suffolk County homeowners. Many of us know Mr. Smolowitz as a past President of the Suffolk County Bar Association. However, three years ago this April, he accepted the challenge to create a new model for the way foreclosures are handled in Suffolk County. As the Coordinator of the Suffolk Bar Pro Bono Foreclosure Settlement Project, Barry Smolowitz has demonstrated innovative leadership and a true spirit of community service.
Inspired by information he gained at a legal conference, he and then District
Administrative Judge, Hon. H. Patrick Leis, III thought it would be a good idea to put together some type of pro bono representation for the people facing foreclosure in Suffolk County. At the time, Mr. Smolowitz was serving as immediate past president of the Suffolk County Bar Association and co-chair of the Pro Bono Action Committee. The foreclosure crisis was looming and there was concern about how the courts would handle the huge number of anticipated cases.
Mr. Smolowitz coordinated the Clinic’s structure to meet the statutory revisions requiring that all foreclosure cases first go to a settlement conference presided over by court referee attorneys. The idea was to organize the Foreclosure Project more like a law office and to work with the courts to make the services widely available. The courts agreed to invite anyone who received a foreclosure notice to make an appointment at the Clinic and have their paperwork reviewed at a free consultation. Touro law students field the client calls explaining how the Project operates. At the consultation, a volunteer attorney reviews the homeowner’s paperwork and evaluates the case for continued free representation. Over 95% of the applicants are approved. Mr. Smolowitz explains, “W e will not assist a person who is strategically foreclosing, or if it is not their primary residence that is in foreclosure.” It is the client’s responsibility to notify the Project of their court date to request an attorney. The attorney who will represent them at the conference is an Attorney of the Day rather than Attorney of Record. This makes it possible for one attorney to do the initial consultation and another to do the settlement conference. Volunteer attorneys have specialized in handling parts of the matter as their talents, preferences, or schedule allows.
Initially, the court’s settlement conferences where held only in Riverhead, but due to the volume of cases the locations were soon expanded to include Patchogue and Ronkonkoma.
With several physical locations and limited human resources, it soon became clear that a clinic would not work unless there was technology to coordinate all of these resources. Once again seeing the need, Smolowitz utilized his technology skills to produce an online Case Management System, appropriately called FAST ( Foreclosure Appointment Status Tracker). This system allows lawyers to see the scheduled cases and to assign themselves to a case, thus creating an automated system. All of the files, documents, and notes for a case are scanned or entered into the system electronically. Confidentiality is preserved because only the attorneys who have been assigned to a particular case can view the records for that case. The system also allows attorneys access to all forms and case law. Although automated, Smolowitz spent hundreds of pro bono hours setting up the clinics, recruiting pro bono attorneys, designing the technology and supervising law students.
Barry Smolowitz is a graduate of the Charter class of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in 1984. He knew that he could call upon fellow alumni as well as other members of the Suffolk County Bar to meet the need for pro bono attorneys to serve in the new Foreclosure clinics. Mr. Smolowitz observes that this Project would not work were it not for the cooperation between the courts, Touro Law School, the Suffolk County Bar Association, and Nassau Suffolk Law Services. He points out that in three years, 165 attorneys have volunteered with the program and have handled over 1600 cases. “One third of our cases are being cleared,” says Smolowitz. This means that a homeowner may get a loan modification or a deed in lieu of foreclosure and be left economically whole. W hen a case cannot be resolved by the parties and their attorneys in the settlement conference, it is referred to the IAS Part to be resolved by a Judge.
After serving for nineteen years on the New York City Police Department, Smolowitz had become accustomed to answering the call to serve his community when needed. His community involvement currently extends to serving on the Board of Directors of Nassau Suffolk Law Services where he generously brings his valuable experience, leadership and ideas to a legal services agency serving low income and disabled Long Islanders. Jeffrey Seigel, Law Services Executive Director, comments, “I am proud to call Barry a friend and colleague. He is a valuable member of our Board and his contributions to the Foreclosure Project cannot be overstated.”
Explaining the insights his pro bono work has given him, he says, “You truly get an understanding that Suffolk is a polyglot community and the issues cut across economic, gender, and racial lines. You will see homeowners in distress from all walks of life. It is possible for someone who was a stockbroker two years ago and is now unemployed to own a house that is “underwater.” Another middle class person may be working but not able to pay their mortgage because a member of their family is critically ill and has high medical bills. Or a low income person may have been issued a mortgage with rates they cannot afford to pay. The most gratifying part of my work is seeing the people we help. Last October we had a public education forum with 85 people in attendance. A homeowner recently came to the Project after receiving foreclosure documents in the mail and believed they were going to be thrown out of their home in a week. W e were able to advise that homeowner that with current procedures and laws, assuming we are not able to work out a positive outcome, it will take approximately three years to be removed from their home.”
Mr. Smolowitz explains that today, the Foreclosure Project continues to conduct client consultations at Touro and covers court settlement venues now held in Riverhead and Ronkonkoma. The bulk of his pro bono work involves training, handling policy and procedural matters of law, and when necessary, handling conferences and going to court. He believes there are many people responsible for the continued success of the program particularly Ralph J. Bavaro, Esq. who is one of 4 referees and the Court Referee’s Administrator, Colleen Fondulis,Esq. who oversaw the program from the court’s perspective at the DAJ’s office from its inception and for almost three years thereafter, and Eric Sackstein, Esq., all who worked with him to set up the project, as well as all of the volunteer lawyers, who put in countless hours of pro bono service and keep the project viable. Most of all he appreciates the support of Kimberly, his loving wife of 20 years.
Over the years Barry Smolowitz has earned the praise of many and served the community in valuable ways. W e are all fortunate that he rose to the challenge with the initiative and leadership necessary to make a huge difference in the lives of many Suffolk County homeowners at this critical time in our economy. It is our privilege to honor Barry Smolowitz as Pro Bono Attorney of the Month.
The Foreclosure Project is always looking for pro bono attorneys to participate in this worthwhile effort. Please contact Barry Smolowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 631 544 0759.
Nancy Zukowski is a volunteer paralegal at Nassau Suffolk Law Services with a paralegal certificate from Suffolk Community College. Ms. Zukowski has extensive professional experience in health insurance claims and health care advocacy and has also interned at Nassau Suffolk Law Services, Queens Housing Court, and at private law offices in Suffolk.