Seymour W. James, Attorney-in-Chief of the Legal Aid Society in New York City, is a true bulwark against injustice in Brooklyn and beyond. As the primary indigent defender in the city and spearhead of the largest public defender organization in the country, he is responsible for the Society’s criminal defense trial, parole revocation defense, appellate and post-conviction criminal practices. Mr. James also has his feet firmly planted in the community by serving as a member of numerous committees and departments in his field. Always at the forefront of his approach is a compassionate and ethical focus, which has not only earned him the respect of his peers, but the loyalty of his community.
How/why did you become involved in your line of work?
As a summer law intern, while attending Boston University Law School, I worked in a program at the NYC Board of Correction which interviewed detainees charged with criminal offenses about their representation. Many of the men interviewed were dissatisfied with the quality of their representation. They complained that their lawyers did not meet with them and were ineffective in court. I believed I could make a difference for the individuals I would represent by becoming a public defender who devoted time to clients and provided zealous advocacy to ensure that they received high quality representation.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the Cliffs Notes version of your day to day and what is at stake.
As the Attorney-in-Chief, I am responsible for the overall supervision of the legal work and the day-to-day operations of the Society. With a staff of nearly 1200 lawyers and over 700 paralegals, social workers, investigators and administrative and other support personnel, we ensure equal justice to low income New Yorkers in over 300,000 legal matters per year in our Criminal Defense, Juvenile Rights and Civil Practices. I meet regularly with the heads of each practice to discuss recent developments and plans for the future provision of legal services in their respectful practices. I also work closely with our Finance Department in developing and monitoring our budget, consult with our General Counsel about legal issues affecting the organization, and meet with our Director of Human Resources about personnel policies.
What do you find most fulling about your work?
The most fulfilling aspect of my work is knowing that the clients we represent are receiving superb representation and equal access to justice. Every day our staff’s commitment to their clients and their expertise and knowledge of the law are protecting the rights of New York City’s most vulnerable residents and ensuring that they are not denied justice because of poverty.
What is your proudest achievement with this work and what is your greatest challenge?
My proudest achievement was helping to secure legislation that resulted in the hiring of more lawyers to serve as public defenders in New York City. The increase in staff reduced intolerably excessive caseloads and enabled lawyers to more thoroughly prepare their cases by meeting more frequently with clients and devoting more time to preparing motions, interviewing witnesses, researching legal issues, conducting investigations and writing legal memoranda.
Our greatest current challenge is protecting the rights of the large number of immigrants the current federal administration is determined to round up and deport. Their targets for deportation include refugees fleeing violence and low income immigrant residents who contribute to our economy and have close family ties in the United States.
What do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field in the future?
I would like to see the establishment of a universal right to counsel in civil matters involving basic human needs so that the rights of all low income individuals can be protected in matters involving housing, health, benefits, and domestic violence. In addition, I would like to see more robust government funding for indigent defense and for the representation of children in Family Court so that we can enhance the services we provide and increase the salaries of our underpaid staff.
Who would you nominate for this list?
I would nominate my wife, Appellate Division Second Department Justice Cheryl E. Chambers.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.
Photo by Nicole Fara Silver.