Since graduating from CUNY Law School, Pavita Krishnaswamy (’02) has had a long-lived, 11-year tenure at the same organization: South Brooklyn Legal Services, a program of Legal Services NYC. Most of her time had been devoted to the HIV unit, as a general practitioner representing people living with HIV/AIDS. She was hired to work in that unit by CUNY Law alumna Cynthia Schneider (’90), and she worked there alongside fellow alumni Dominique Ghossein (’90), Marie Tatro (’91), and Joy Mele (’00).
“All my clients are memorable to me for different reasons,” says Krishnaswamy. “It is impossible to practice in the world of HIV advocacy without being moved by the individual stories of our clients.”
Early in her career, Krishnaswamy recalls fielding a phone call in the office on Christmas Eve. The caller, a client of hers, had not expected to reach anyone and had planned to leave a message.
Krishnaswamy had represented the client in an abuse and neglect proceeding in Family Court and was able to convince the court to return the client’s child to her.
“For the first time in years, she was watching her daughter decorate a Christmas tree in her living room, and she was grateful to us,” says Krishnaswamy. “I was struck by the power we advocates have to profoundly change the course of our clients’ lives,” to unify families and provide them with safe and secure housing.
For the past two years, Krishnaswamy has additionally served as Deputy Director of Litigation for Legal Services NYC’s Brooklyn programs. That involves coordinating and developing broader state and federal litigation with its advocates, providing supervision on individual client matters, and assisting the organization’s citywide programs with other types of broad-based advocacy.
Krishnaswamy counts among her biggest professional accomplishments the fact that she has been able to continue to practice public interest law with Legal Services NYC for 11 years.
“Longevity in the practice of poverty law is, understandably, not always easy to accomplish,” she says, given the weighty issues with which clients need help dealing. Riding it out to build institutional memory and knowledge helps season advocates, which can better help the communities they serve.
“I think this, coupled with an unflagging commitment to my clients’ needs above all else, is the best contribution I make,” says Krishnaswamy.
What motivates Krishnaswamy’s passion for justice is the economic inequity her impoverished clients face.
“Not only have our clients done nothing to deserve the deprivation they are expected to live with their entire lives, they are systematically excluded from the decision-making processes that could change their circumstances,” she says. “I see my job as ensuring that, through access to our legal system, poor people have some agency over their own lives.”
Krishnaswamy credits CUNY Law-unlike other schools that allow only specialization in public interest law-for best preparing her for her career.
“My professors taught me to think about the law as a vehicle for the delivery of positive outcomes for low-income, disadvantaged, and vulnerable populations,” says Krishnaswamy. “There can be no better foundation for a career in public interest law than the one CUNY provided me.”
– Paul Lin