December 2, 2013
Ed Campanelli (’03) got his start working with clients living with HIV/AIDS in 2002, as a summer intern for the AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC). He also worked there as a paralegal his last year of law school.
As fate would have it, by the time Campanelli graduated, passed the bar exam, and started looking for fulltime work, ACQC was seeking to fill a staff attorney position. The legal director did not post the job opening; she simply called Campanelli.
“I was off and running as an attorney dealing with clients living with the virus,” he says.
Campanelli currently works as a staff attorney at Housing Works, Inc., an organization that fights AIDS and homelessness. While the bulk of the cases involve housing court, the agency also deals with benefits issues and advocates on behalf of clients before several government agencies. It also pursues impact litigation.
Among his most memorable cases: an immigrant with little English-speaking skills and education who sought to claim social security disability benefits after becoming ill with full-blown AIDS. The client, who had worked as a porter in a building for 19 years, had applied for benefits twice and was rejected each time. After four years, the case remained open in appeals, and the original attorney on the case had left ACQC.
“[The client] had done what the system had asked and paid into it. The system made it difficult for him to get his benefits,” recounts Campanelli. After several hearings and appeals, the client-10 years after initially applying-“finally got his benefits. It was a very meaningful and satisfying case for me.”
The case illustrates what Campanelli believes is the most important aspect of his work: being a public interest lawyer who works to correct the bureaucracy that marginalizes his clients.
“That’s a big victory. Sometimes you can do it with a persuasive letter, and sometimes you can do it with a phone call,” says Campanelli, “but just making bureaucracy work right to produce the correct result for the client, that to me is a major accomplishment.”
His desire to cut through bureaucracy dates back to the early 1990s. He had fallen in love with a man and was thinking about starting a family, even as the first same-sex marriage cases began to surface, and some states were starting to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
“That’s what really struck me: that there was no such thing as gay families as far as the law was concerned. It seemed so weird. The desire to create a family is natural no matter who you are,” he remembers thinking at the time.
Campanelli was drawn to CUNY School of Law for its excellence in public interest law, including a strong balance between theory and clinical practice, as well as its diversity and its low student debt load.
“CUNY Law was three of the most-fun years of my life. People ask me how that could be, but it was!” he laughs.
– Paul Lin