Laurette Mulry: A Holistic Approach to Helping Suffolk’s Indigent Clients

Laurette Mulry
Laurette Mulry

Everyone is familiar with these words from TV crime shows and films when someone is arrested:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.”

That last part is where Laurette Mulry comes in. Mulry is the Attorney in Charge at the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society (SCLAS), which plays a vitally important function in the criminal justice system in Suffolk.

If you remember your episodes of Law & Order, after an arrest by police, the case is turned over to the district attorney’s office for prosecution. But anyone charged with a crime is also assured legal representation to defend themselves in court. It’s in the Constitution! If their income qualifies, they are entitled to a Legal Aid Defense attorney. SCLAS is the primary provider of indigent defense services for the county, handling in excess of 30,000 cases annually in criminal, family and appellate courts.

“The mission of the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society and our public defenders is to provide zealous, holistic criminal defense, certain family court representation and social work to eligible Suffolk County residents,” said Mulry. “We ensure justice and fairness in an extremely challenging system and work together to provide quality access to legal representation to the most vulnerable population.”

Mulry came to the SCLAS in 2000, right out of Touro Law Center, and started in the Senior Citizens Division. She moved up to administration in 2011, when she was triumphant in securing better and less costly health insurance for the employees. She has served as the Attorney in Charge of Legal Aid since 2016.

In 2015 a landmark lawsuit was settled at the state level called the Hurrell-Harring decision, which basically said that the state was not upholding its constitutional mandate to provide indigent defense. This led to extra funding for public defender offices throughout the state to increase the level of services. This was a perfect time for Mulry to launch her holistic approach, something that she passionately believes in. She hired social workers to work alongside the public defenders.

The SCLAS now employs 150 defense attorneys and about 15 social workers. The social workers work closely with attorneys to provide a holistic approach to their clientele, who often come to them not only with a legal issue, but with others social issues that can include addiction, domestic abuse, poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Mulry was This instrumental in implementing a holistic model of defense in the provision of defense representation in Suffolk County.

For example, clients may have great difficulty getting to and from court, which may not sound like a big challenge for anyone with a car, but vulnerable people with little money and no car, face more of a challenge.

“Often, people can miss the last bus leaving court and they become stranded,” says Mulry. “We are currently working with LYFT, which is providing funding for free vouchers for our qualifying clients. We also conducted a very successful holiday drive last year using an Amazon Wish List and received thousands of dollars’ worth of donations of LYFT vouchers, as well as personal hygiene and care items that SCLAS social workers give out to incarcerated clients and those headed into rehabilitation facilities.”

The holiday drive was spearheaded by Kerry Tenure, a forensic social worker (LMSW) with the SCLAS and the Amazon Wish list went viral with the help of then-SCLAS attorney Alex Clavering reaching his 800,000 followers. The office received more than 2,500 boxes of gifts and cards from all over the country, many containing heart-felt notes such as: “Your kindness means everything,” “I wish someone would have helped me when I was struggling,” “From one justice survivor to all the others, don’t lose hope… ”, and “ Thank you for thinking of all the little things, when I was homeless the little things meant the world. Sending love.”

“LYFT’s offer to fund additional rides is a game changer in this county,” said Mulry. “Lyft rides create a sense of safety and security for all of those indigent individuals who can’t afford even a bus ride.”

However, the job is not without its great challenges, according to Mulry.

The salary playing field between those attorneys working for the district attorney’s office and the SCLA public defenders who represent the indigent is far from even.

Legal Aid attorneys are paid an average of $13,000 a year LESS than their prosecuting counterparts at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. The salary disparity is just one element of the lopsided pay and benefits scale for the two offices face the same issue, earning $35,000-$75, 000 less than their District Attorney counterparts.”

“We always strive to hire the most qualified attorneys who possess the knowledge and skills necessary to provide effective and meaningful representation to those who cannot afford counsel., but this is becoming more and more difficult. In exit interviews our attorneys have routinely pointed to the lower salaries as reason for the decision to resign,” Mulry says.

Mulry and her family, who live in the Town of Islip, enjoy the East End’s vineyards, restaurants, and cultural offerings.

“Any chance I get I love to travel out east,” she says.

“Any chance I get I love to travel out east,” she says. “My favorite places to eat are Dockers and Stone Creek Inn. Of course, I love going to the wineries, especially Wolffer Estate. My favorite beaches are Rogers Beach and the Bath & Tennis Club at Westhampton Beach. On the North Fork, I love the lavender farm, Croteaux Vineyards and of course, Briermere Farms for pies. Our kids grew up pumpkin picking at Harbes Farms, apple picking and strawberry picking.”

Ms. Mulry currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Chief Defenders Association of New York, an organization of Chiefs of institutional and assigned counsel defender programs statewide. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore appointed Ms. Mulry to serve as a Commissioner on the Commission to Reimagine the Future of the Courts in New York. She is also a member of the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services Criminal Defense Advisory Group. Ms. Mulry is active on the Suffolk County Bar Association and is an Officer of the Suffolk Academy of Law.

She is also an active member of the Suffolk County Access to Justice Task Force, the Suffolk County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and the Suffolk County Bar Association Pro Bono Foundation. She also serves on the Suffolk County Judicial Women in the Courts Committee, which she co-chaired in 2017-2019.

Ms. Mulry received her B.A. from Colgate University and her Juris Doctor, graduating Magna Cum Laude, from Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center. Mulry is also co-chairing the Criminal Law Committee of the Suffolk County Bar Association and is Past President of the Chief Defender’s Association of New York. She was recently appointed to serve on the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on the Modernization of Criminal Practice.

Mulry is married to her husband Cliff, and they have three children; David 27, and Aidan, 25, who are both attorneys, and daughter Ali, 21, who is attending nursing school.

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