Contributing Your Services Pro Bono To MFY Is A Satisfying Experience

Thursday, September 10, 2009 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Bruce Cogan, MFY Legal Services, Inc.

Editor:  Before retiring in 2007, what had been yourinvolvement in the law?

Cogan:  After graduating from law school in 1976, Iwent to work for several law firms as a corporate and tax associate.  In about 1984, I started working for AmericanExpress Company in its corporate tax law department, rising through the ranksuntil I became general tax counsel. American Express was a fascinating place to practice tax law.  There we had the opportunity to do taxplanning for a company with operations around the world and to work on a numberof cutting-edge financial deals and corporate transactions.

Editor:  When and why did you decide to retire?

Cogan:  I decided to retire during the summer of2007.  Shortly before that time, mycolleagues began to refer to me as a “treasure.”  Once you’re referred to as a “treasure,” youknow it’s time to go.  That time was alsopropitious since it allowed me to accompany my son, who was applying tocolleges, on his tour of colleges around the country.

Editor:  Did you immediately start to volunteer?

Cogan:  Far from it. After leaving American Express, I swore that the last thing I wanted todo was to practice law in any capacity.

Editor:  What changed your mind?

Cogan:  After about six months, I found that I beganto miss practicing law.  I decided I wasgoing to volunteer as a lawyer, but in a field as far removed from tax law as Icould find.

Editor:  Why did you choose family law?

Cogan:  Unlike tax law, it involves flesh and bloodclients.  Also, unlike advanced corporatetax planning, which is akin to playing three-dimensional chess wearing ablindfold, the body of family law is manageable.

Editor:  Why did you choose to volunteer at MFY LegalServices?

Cogan:  There were a number of reasons.  MFY – located in downtown Manhattan - sponsors a project known as theKinship Caregiver Law Project, which provides full pro bono representation ofgrandparents and others in adopting or gaining custody or guardianship ofchildren of their relatives.  It’s greatwork assisting grandparents who are trying to rescue children whose lives havefallen apart.  MFY is also a greatorganization that has been representing low-income New Yorkers since 1963 on arange of issues, including housing, disability rights, employment, consumer,foreclosure and family law.  The spiritof “sticking up for the little guy” pervades the organization.

Editor:  What do you do at MFY?

Cogan:  That has changed over time.  Initially, I spent time preparing acomprehensive new manual on legal custody and guardianship for outside lawyers,which was a good way to cut my teeth on the basics of family law.  After that, I have spent most of my timerepresenting clients in family court in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan in adoption andother matters.  Most recently, I preparedan amicus brief in an important case involving the special rights ofgrandparents to visit their grandchildren.

Editor:  How many hours do you volunteer at MFY?

Cogan:  Normally about 10 hours a week.  But it varies.  In a week in which I have to go to court orneed to prepare litigation documents, I may spend upwards of 20 hours.  Even during busy weeks, however, I can stillspend a lot of time with my family and on other post-retirement activities.

Editor:  What has been your experience at MFY?

Cogan:  Despite the challenges that all non profitlegal services agencies face, MFY enables people to practice law at a highlevel.  Also, the people in my area tookthe time to train me in my new field and have been very accommodating inallowing me to take on assignments of increasing complexity.  Though legal aid work is generally a youngperson’s game, MFY has ultimately done a fine job integrating me and othersenior volunteers into its operations and making us feel at home.

Editor:  What has been your high point and low point in volunteering?

Cogan:  Though most of my clients have beenresponsive and appreciative of my efforts, some of my clients have been morechallenging.  That should not besurprising since life has not been easy for many of those we represent.
The high point of my experience so far has beenthe finalization of my first adoption in Kings County Family Court this past April.  There I met an amazing 4-year child,abandoned at birth, whose paternal grandmother was seeking to adopt her.  I was so taken by the child – who was readingfluently by the time I met her – that I have been assisting the grandmother togain special educational opportunities for the child.  It’s a far cry from doing foreign tax creditplanning.

After retiring following over 30 years as a corporate law lawyer in private and corporate practice, Bruce Cogan began volunteering with MFY Legal Services, Inc. in its family law practice.

MFY Legal Services, Inc. offers volunteer opportunities for retirees, as well as for attorneys in transition and deferred associates. For more information, contact Jeanette Zelhof, Deputy Director, at 212-417-3727 or For additional information about MFY, go to