NYU Law School Magazine: Another Bronx Tale

Robin Steinberg passionately believes that effective legal defense for the poor includes a good dose of social work.

Never say something is impossible to achieve around Robin Steinberg ’82; it will only motivate her to prove you wrong. The 51-yearold founder of the Bronx Defenders, a unique non-profit public defense group in the Bronx, always steps up to a challenge. “When someone says, ‘Oh you can’t,’ nothing lights a fire under my behind more than that,” she said with a laugh over a bowl of steaming oatmeal at an Upper West Side café.

That spirit drove this public defender to find a more comprehensive way to represent people thrust into the criminal justice system. Enter the Bronx Defenders. Founded in 1997 with the help of a city grant, the Bronx Defenders tackle the broader economic and social contexts that affect their clients—from immigration status to child welfare issues. It’s an approach that turns the traditional public defense system on its head. “Public defenders only focus on the circumstances of the arrest and have no idea about the other areas in a person’s life that may have destabilized them to begin with,” Steinberg says. “We ask the broader questions: Are you receiving public aid? What’s your immigration status? Where are your kids? Nobody asks these kinds of questions. We do. Our job is to counsel and represent the human being. We try to get to know them, understand them, and make sure that what’s good about them is understood.”

During the last decade or so, Steinberg has assembled a diverse staff of criminal defense, housing, immigration, family law, employment, and civil rights lawyers, social workers, parent advocates, investigators, public benefits specialists, community organizers, and administrative staff—120 in all. The Bronx Defenders Web site profiles every one of them, even the janitor. According to Steinberg, her organization assists some 14,000 people annually with everything from navigating the criminal justice system to housing and health issues. “She is truly a visionary,” says Justine Olderman, managing attorney at the Bronx Defenders, decrying what she calls the “cookie-cutter approach” to criminal defense.

Clients arrive at the Bronx Defenders’ doorstep through the criminal and family courts. The office also gets lots of walk-ins, who sometimes only want to do something as simple as making a copy of a document. The office always obliges. And all clients, no matter what the request, are made to feel comfortable. A bright reception area, filled with couches, plump pillows, an assortment of toys, telephones, and free coffee, welcomes them. “I’ve put a lot of thought into our physical space. We want our clients to feel that this is a place they can trust and where they feel safe,” she says, with a hint of pride in her voice. “Every client deserves to be treated with compassion and dignity.”

Likewise, Steinberg insists that every client served by the Bronx Defenders leaves feeling that his or her story has been heard, regardless of the outcome. “Sometimes the case is so strong, you can’t stop the train,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I tell my staff, if all you can do is enable your clients to believe that their dignity has been preserved and you have shown respect for them, then you’ve succeeded.” She underscores her point, as she sips her coffee, adding, “Some of my biggest fans are doing life in prison.”

It’s not difficult to see why Steinberg has fans. She’s a sincere woman with genuine conviction. You believe her when she talks about how she wants to help people who have been mistreated by a system that she considers heartless and complacent. Her smile is warm and endearing, her enthusiasm, contagious. She chuckles and confesses that she can’t walk by someone asking for money without giving them a few coins. “I always look them in the eye and ask them how they’re doing,” she says, a habit that has prompted her 13-year-old daughter to call her “the nicest person she’s ever met.” Her daughter has a point. Steinberg, a native New Yorker, is the kind of do-gooder that makes you want to empty your pocket for the next homeless person you run across.

Steinberg didn’t always think law was the way to accomplish her goals. At the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, she majored in women’s studies. Her ambition, even then, was a lofty one: She wanted to change the world. Eventually she came to think she could do that by becoming a lawyer and advocating for women’s rights, so she applied to NYU and made her way back to her hometown. At first, law school wasn’t quite as inspirational as she’d imagined. “I was hardly a stellar law student,” she laughs. “I sat in the back row and did not participate.” As she put it when she received her Alumna of the Year award from Law Women last February, “Don’t underestimate the power and the passion of the quiet students in the back row trying to stay unnoticed.” In her second year, Steinberg took a criminal defense clinic that involved helping women in a maximum-security prison in Bedford, New York. “I literally spent the year getting to know women and listening to their stories,” she says. She was hooked. Today, she’s still listening to clients who want to be heard—and in the process, she’s achieved a sliver of her goal: She is changing the world, at least in her own corner of the Bronx.

By Dody Tsiantar

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