Robert McCreanor is now the Executive Director for the Rhode Island Center for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law center that focuses on providing services in Rhode Island around issues including housing, immigration, and workers’ rights. Read more about his organization at http://www.centerforjustice.org/.
This post was written when McCreanor was the Director of Legal Services at Catholic Migration Services (CMS), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.
Robert McCreanor ‘02 is the Director of Legal Services at Catholic Migration Services (CMS), a nonprofit civil legal service provider in New York City. McCreanor knew that he wanted to pursue public interest work when he was accepted to HLS. He deferred for a year to work in a public housing development through the I Have a Dream Foundation, doing community organizing with low-income children and their parents. At the time, McCreanor says, he did not know that engaging a community in collective action would be a recurring theme throughout his career.
At HLS McCreanor worked in the prosecution clinic and volunteered for Shelter Legal Services. Following graduation he spent three years as an Assistant District Attorney with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where he gained valuable trial experience doing criminal prosecutions.
Soon, however, McCreanor found himself looking for more entrepreneurial, community-based work. He left the DA’s office and joined Catholic Migration Services (CMS) to start a housing services program. Previously CMS’s services had been limited to immigration assistance; this expansion of CMS’s work was the entrepreneurial challenge McCreanor sought. The Immigrant Tenant Advocacy Program began as a one-man operation. McCreanor set up community-based legal clinics, heard housing complaints, visited clients’ buildings, and organized tenants. He pressured property owners to improve conditions, filed suit against them, brought attention to housing issues through advocacy, and began to build relationships in the community.
A year into the project, unsure of where it was headed and facing a significant student loan burden, McCreanor left public interest work for the private firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. McCreanor describes his time away from social justice work as a learning experience; complex commercial litigation is very different from fighting slum lords in Queens. McCreanor appreciates the understanding of the private sector and the professional contacts he developed at his firm, which now offers pro bono services relevant to his work with CMS.
A year and a half later, in 2008, McCreanor returned to CMS to further develop the Tenant Advocacy Program. Simultaneously he launched a clinical program at St. John’s Law School, integrating his work at CMS with a course on law and organizing at St. John’s. During the financial crisis McCreanor and his team dedicated two and a half years to filing suit against predatory investors (large financial institutions that had bought real estate and attempted to evict residents) and organized a media campaign to expose their actions. CMS’s efforts culminated in a settlement facilitated by the New York Attorney General’s Office.
Since his return to CMS in 2008 McCreanor has taken on more leadership and administrative responsibilities. Now the Director of Legal Services, he identifies areas of need in the community and determines how CMS can best address them. This process led to the launch of a third legal services program, the Immigrant Workers’ Rights Program, several years ago. On a daily basis, McCreanor coordinates the work of CMS’s three units, assists attorneys with their legal strategies, collaborates with partner organizations, and dedicates a lot of time to fundraising. McCreanor says that trying to confront tremendous need with very limited resources is the most challenging aspect of his job; deciding which clients CMS can and can’t represent and where CMS can most effectively direct its resources is extremely difficult.
The job, however, is as rewarding as it is challenging. The best parts, McCreanor says, are the relationships he has built with CMS’s dedicated staff and with clients in the community, some of whom he has known for almost a decade. There is no substitute, McCreanor says, for time spent with people, and the many years he has dedicated to immersing himself in his community have allowed him to overcome the barriers between lawyer and client, build trust, and earn respect. Even while serving in an administrative role, McCreanor tries to stay close to this community and the day-to-day operations of his organization; each week he sits in on an intake session or attends a group meeting in the community.
McCreanor says his unconventional career path has shown him that it is possible to move from one practice area to another. Students need not agonize over finding the perfect job; instead, they should find an experience that will provide them with good mentorship and familiarize them with the community they hope to serve, as knowing the local legal landscape is invaluable. In addition, students interested in legal services should do clinical work and develop their language skills.