The dress code is casual Friday, there’s coffee brewing and visitors are greeted by Mookie, a 13-year-old poodle mix with a toy bone in his mouth. In a studio office with high windows and green satin curtains, Swannie Batista and Elaine Castillo are spending the day after Thanksgiving helping one of their clients file an injury claim.
Welcome to the office of Paralegals for the Community, which opened its doors in The Hub in the fall. The cozy atmosphere is meant to make their clients feel at home, said Batista, 33, one of the firm’s founders along with Castillo, 31, and Batista’s sister, Rachel, 30. “Showing clients that we are here to listen is essential,” said Swannie Batista. Sixty-eight percent of Mott Haven residents are Hispanic, leading her to conclude there was a need for Spanish speaking paralegals.
All three are bilingual and have worked in several law firms across the city, including The Bronx Defenders and The Dearie Law Firm. They hope that the new venture will help the one-third of Mott Haven residents who “don’t know English at all but the basic words,” said Swannie Batista.
Sarah Borsody who works as a criminal defense attorney at Bronx Defenders said she has seen a rise in Spanish speaking immigrants during the last two years.
The two sisters came up with the idea for the firm just shortly after their father passed away last year. “After he died, everything was put in perspective for us.” Their father who was also an entrepreneur was their biggest influence, said Swannie Batista. The three were able to dig into their savings and open up the firm with about $10,000.
Some of the services they provide include assisting clients with the completion and submission of documents for uncontested divorces, personal injury claims and green card renewals. Swannie Batista said she makes certain her clients are fully aware that the firm does not provide legal advice. “If anything is too complex and we feel we cannot help, we recommend they seek legal counsel,” she added.
With the help of their Facebook page, word-of-mouth, they now see 15 to 20 clients daily. The office is located in a quickly developing business district. Clients are also being referred to them by businesses such as Grant Associates, True Care, and Clinton Institute, which are located in the same building as the firm.
One of those clients, Johanny Abreu De Vega, 25, is the single mother of a three year old. She said she felt lost when the lawyers she initially consulted told her she would be charged at least $800 to file for divorce. The Dominican-born single mom’s visa expired this year, after two years in New York City.
Paralegalftc processed her divorce and visa renewal within two months. She was relieved at how quickly and inexpensively the process was completed, and is scheduled to be fingerprinted by the end of this month.
Nelson De La Cruz, who owns a nearby law firm, said he normally charges up to $25,000 for green card renewal cases when children or assets are involved.
Paralegalftc has partnered up with Hostos to create a Paralegal Scholarship that will be announced in the spring.