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Agency veteran takes the reins

Like many young adults, in college Carla Palumbo was not exactly sure what she wanted to do.

“I’ve always been the kind of person that spoke up for others and could argue my way out of just about anything,” Palumbo says. “My mother always used to say ‘you need to be a lawyer,’ and so I kind of left it to fate.”

Turns out her mother was right: Last month, Palumbo, 57, was named president and CEO of the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, N.Y. She also serves as a Rochester City Council member.

But the practice of law was not always her goal. She graduated from SUNY Albany in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Italian.

“I think a lot of people that go into the field have lawyers in the family; we have none really,” Palumbo says. “I always had an affinity for culture and loved studying languages. Then after college I thought, all right, now what am I going to do with all these languages?”

She considered teaching, but did not fall in love with it. So she applied to law school and to graduate school for an advanced degree in languages. She chose between the two by weighing the pros and cons, following her intuition and considering the financial aid package each school offered. She ended up at the Syracuse University School of Law.

“It was a culture change from the kind of learning I was used to,” she says. “It was really tough and different from studying literature.”

But after a summer internship at what was then Monroe County Legal Assistance Corp. (now Law New York), she discovered her passion for public interest law.

Upon her graduation from law school in 1982, Palumbo interviewed at large law firms and considered a career as a prosecutor in New York City—but neither trajectory felt right. Around the same time, she heard about an opening at the Legal Aid Society.

“The minute I walked in the door, I knew I had come home,” Palumbo says. “I knew that this was where I needed to be.” After a quick interview, she was offered the job and given some time to consider the offer. As soon as she left the building, she knew her answer. She called the director immediately to accept the position, and a $17,000 annual starting salary. 

The Legal Aid Society represents low- to moderate-income adults, children and families in civil matters, including family law, bankruptcy and landlord-tenant disputes.

“We have grown immensely in the past 30 years, from when I started to where we are now,” Palumbo says. “We now have about 65 employees, two divisions and roughly 30 lawyers. So we’re pretty much a medium-size law firm, but one that’s very mission driven. We are the stopgap for people in need in this community.”  

The agency’s 2013-2014 annual report lists operational revenue of $4.47 million and $4.49 million in total functional expenses.

The agency’s largest civil practice is family law, primarily the representation of victims of domestic violence. Through its Attorney for the Child program, the agency represents children in family court, whether they are victims of abuse and neglect, custody cases or troubled youth.

“This is real, one-on-one, in-the- trenches kind of work,” Palumbo says. “We focus on direct service to people who would otherwise go unrepresented. This is about access to justice and access to the court system, but it’s also about the individual representation that people with money can afford.”

Assigned counsel is limited in civil cases, she says. For example, in a divorce case, assigned counsel will deal with custody and visitation or an order of protection but not division of property or child support. The Legal Aid Society represents such cases in their entirety.

Longtime staff member
In an era when workers are known to filter through multiple jobs—and even careers—over the course of a lifetime, Palumbo’s 30-year tenure and commitment to the Legal Aid Society is remarkable.

“There has been opportunity for me to leave along the way, but I’ve always been happy here,” she says. “I like the way we work, and I like the way the agency really cares about its employees.”

Palumbo, who previously served as chief operating officer, succeeded Alan Harris at the helm of the agency on Dec. 1. He stepped down as CEO in November.

“I think every time Alan thought I might be thinking about leaving or looking for a new job, he came up with a new job for me to do here,” Palumbo says. “He gave me more responsibilities and opportunities so that I was always challenged.”

During his tenure, Harris streamlined the process for screening cases to maximize efficiency. He chose to prioritize three areas where needs could be more fully met and made Palumbo director of the agency’s Domestic Violence, Tenant Advocacy and Hispanic Outreach programs. Prior to establishing the programs, the agency handled roughly 75 domestic violence cases a year; under Palumbo’s guidance it now handles almost 800. 

Palumbo determined the agency could benefit by working more closely with Alternatives for Battered Women. She established a relationship with ABW that led to the creation of the Court Advocacy Program, which ensures that a client visiting either agency is referred to the other.

The success of the program is notable. There has been a significant increase in the number of Legal Aid clients who follow through with orders of protection since the agency’s collaboration with ABW, Palumbo explains. The agency continues to work closely with ABW, and its attorneys are trained in the area of domestic violence

“As a victim of domestic violence, you want an attorney that actually understands domestic violence, and our attorneys do,” Palumbo says. “They understand the dynamics and work with clients so that they feel comfortable proceeding and understand, essentially, we have their back.” 

As Palumbo considers goals for herself in the CEO role and the new year, she realizes she will continue to be challenged. As CEO, she recognizes her responsibility to maintain the Legal Aid Society’s fiscal viability and position in the state budget, which affords the agency flexibility and less dependence on grant funding.

She plans to meet individually with members of her staff, the community, non-profits and state collaborators to better understand their needs. She also will strive to increase public awareness of services available through the agency.

This is a period of top-level transition and growth for the agency. In addition to Palumbo’s new role, the Legal Aid Society has a new chief operating officer taking over her former position. A new position, human resources manager, has been created. Another change took place in March 2014, when William Davis be-came CFO upon the retirement of Linda Kammer.

Palumbo already has recognized some necessary areas of focus. The agency does not have a bankruptcy attorney, but has done limited foreclosure-prevention work. It also has been swamped with needs for consumer right advocacy such as credit repair, bankruptcy and foreclosure. With pending changes in immigration, she plans to poise the agency’s Immigration Unit to address the issue. And despite the amount of money and awareness directed toward domestic violence, much need remains.

“It took me a while to get to a place where I could appreciate the fact that although we aren’t solving the problem of domestic violence, what we have done in the 20 years that I’ve been doing this work is make the system better so that more victims are getting help,” she said.

The victories with individual clients are the reward, and that is what keeps her going, she says. While she will miss representing clients on a daily basis, her greatest fear is to become disconnected from the daily work of the agency’s attorneys and support staff.

“The key is to stay involved,” she says.

She will remain in her office, instead of moving to the ninth floor of the building on West Main Street where the administrative offices are.

“I want people to be able to walk by, stop in and talk about their cases, to talk to people about what’s going on, go to meetings. I think it’s really important as the CEO to stay connected to the staff in that way, to know what’s going on in the legal world and what’s happening over at the courthouse,”  she says.

Palumbo has a clear vision of where she wants to take the agency and motivates people around her with her enthusiasm, says Kathia Casion, civil division director at the Legal Aid Society. Palumbo constantly is creating new personal and professional goals for herself, including expanding the agency’s reach using technology, Casion says.

“Her dedication to Legal Aid and the community is infectious,” Casion says. “When her day ends at Legal Aid, it begins at City Council with meetings, events and related community activities. I get tired just looking at her calendar.”

Political role
Palumbo has been involved in local politics since running for Monroe County Legislature in 2001. She won her first primary on 9/11 and eventually became minority leader. When a vacancy opened on City Council, she saw an opportunity to make even more of an impact.

Molly Clifford, executive director of Community Health Strategies Inc., met Palumbo almost a decade ago when both were working on a political campaign. They work together on the board of directors for Mary’s Place, a resource center for homeless women. She describes Palumbo as a warm, loyal and generous friend to many.

“She is selfless with her time, despite how busy she is,” Clifford says. “And always happy to help—with a piece of legal advice, to act as a sounding board or to cook for you—she is a legendary cook!”

Palumbo regularly plays host at pasta dinners for the other members of City Council, her Legal Aid staff and her friends, Clifford says.  

Palumbo, who grew up in the Chili and Gates area, lives on the west side of the city. A self-proclaimed dog fanatic, she has a bichon frise named Uli. She continues to have a passion for language and loves to travel. Palumbo also is an avid nature photographer; prints and cards of her work are sold online and at local festivals.

Palumbo considers herself to be direct. She likes to get to the bottom line—a quality that has served her well in both law and politics.

“She is not afraid to stand up for what’s right, to tell people when they are wrong, and she can build consensus around difficult issues,” Clifford says. “That’s the reason she’s often the go-to person on City Council around controversial subjects, like the downtown bus terminal, and was respected by both parties as minority leader.”

As a supervisor, Palumbo welcomes opinions that are not the same as her own and recognizes that everyone brings different strengths to the table, Casion says.

“We don’t always agree on everything, and sometimes our exchanges can get heated,” she says. “But as friends, we laugh a lot. Carla is compassionate almost to a fault and has an awesome sense of humor.”

When Palumbo’s mother told her all those years ago that she should be a lawyer, she could not have foreseen how perfect a fit the profession would prove for her daughter. “I feel like I’m the face of Legal Aid now,” Palumbo says. “And it needs to be a face that recognizes the seriousness of what we do, but also recognizes that this is good work. I think that I bring a really optimistic view to Legal Aid—to what we do and where we’re going.”

Jenn Bergin is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Carla Palumbo
Position: President and CEO of the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, N.Y.
Age: 57
Education: B.A. in Spanish and Italian, SUNY Albany, 1979; J.D., Syracuse University School of Law, 1982
Family: Uli, her dog
Residence: Rochester
Hobbies: Photography, travel
Quote: “We focus on direct service to people who would otherwise go unrepresented. This is about access to justice and access to the court system, but it’s also about the individual representation that people with money can afford.”

1/9/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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