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SBA’s Catalina Martinez on Pro Bono Work: ‘Attorneys Have So Much Power to Help’

By Lauren Schenkman

February 5, 2018

Catalina Martinez

With members in all 50 states and more than 80 countries, the D.C. Bar’s Member Spotlight regularly features the people who make up our community. Read about your peers, their lives, and their work around the world.  


When Small Business Administration (SBA) attorney and avid globetrotter Catalina Martinez talks about a recent trip, her voice fills with enthusiasm. “It was amazing,” she gushes. “I’m very, very lucky to have been able to do that.”

Martinez, who serves as district counsel for the SBA’s Washington Metropolitan Area District Office, hails from Cartagena, Colombia, and has set foot in a jaw-dropping 43 countries. But this time she isn’t talking about, say, the remote Indonesian island where she went scuba diving last year. She’s talking about Miami, Florida.

When Hurricane Irma struck the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean in the fall of 2017, the SBA put out a call for employees, particularly Spanish speakers, willing to go to Florida to help people apply for low-interest, long-term loans to replace destroyed property. So from late September to late November, Martinez traded her desk in Washington for 9 to 14 hours a day at a makeshift office on a college campus in Miami. She says the need was so great that victims of both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico soon after Irma, began lining up outside the office at 2 a.m.

“Many times I had to take a break and go out and cry because the stories were just so sad,” says Martinez. It’s impossible for her to say which story impacted her the most. Was it the 22-year-old cancer patient who lost $20,000 of his chemotherapy drug because it couldn’t be refrigerated? The family with the young baby that, when the power went out in their high-rise apartment building in Puerto Rico, had to walk up and down 24 flights of stairs to find food?

One day a woman drove up from the Florida Keys, where she’d left behind her condemned mobile home and all her belongings. All she had been able to save were her dog and a few photos. Yet the woman was resilient, Martinez says. “She was like, ‘They’re just things . . . You know what, we’ll move on.’”

Although the hours were long and the stories heartbreaking, Martinez felt her spirits lift when she saw people “leave with some glimpse of hope.” All she had done, she says, was “speak to them in their language, and listen to them.”

It’s no surprise that Martinez finds service so fulfilling; pro bono work is what first piqued her interest in the law. Martinez had long dreamed of working for Colombia’s foreign service, but her family fled the country in 1999 due to violence and political unrest. After graduating from Florida International University with degrees in international relations and economics, Martinez followed a friend’s example and began working as a paralegal in D.C.

At first, it was just a job. Then she got to help an attorney on a pro bono case. As gentrification transformed the city, landlords seeking to empty apartments to fill them with wealthier tenants were trying to oust low-income residents—some of them immigrants—by any means possible, including hiring people to impersonate immigration officers. Helping her employer change the lives of these tenants by representing them pro bono, Martinez felt “inspired.” She entered law school, graduating from American University Washington College of Law in 2009.

Service is a big part of Martinez’s day to day as a lawyer. She coordinates the SBA’s pro bono program* and volunteers twice a year at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advice & Referral Clinic. Since 2009, she has worked on 11 pro bono cases, several of them housing cases placed with her through the Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic. “I love being able to represent people who don’t believe they have a voice,” she says.

She has seen that tenants who feel powerless put up with shocking conditions, from rats and roaches to missing windows and lack of heat. One woman Martinez represented was being evicted for not paying rent after her landlord had refused to fix a number of housing code violations, including mold and mildew, vermin, and leaking roof and pipes, among others. Martinez helped file a counterclaim against the landlord, who was ordered to get the apartment fixed. The woman, who had spent a year homeless before moving into the apartment, was elated.

On a visit to different tenant, Martinez stepped into a basement flooded with sewage. “I think I threw away those shoes,” she says wryly. But she says it’s essential to visit clients in their homes. “You really feel what they’re going through if you see the conditions they’re forced to live in.”

Martinez’s latest case was through the Housing Right to Counsel Project, in which she was partnered for mentorship with the Pro Bono Center. A disabled elderly woman was being evicted after her subsidy provider, the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), had stopped paying its portion of the rent due to housing code violations, including bedbugs, a broken lock on the front door, and insufficient heat. Martinez was able to get the landlord to fix the apartment so that DCHA would continue paying, and the elderly woman was freed from paying the back rent. Now Martinez is going above and beyond and helping her find a better place to live.

Despite a full-time job and her pro bono cases, Martinez is looking forward to adding more countries to her list in 2018. But her real resolution is to help other lawyers discover the rewards of pro bono work. Lawyers might fear that they’ll be given a case in a field they don’t have experience with, but Martinez points out that the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center pairs lawyers with an expert mentor, as well as a back-up expert mentor from the Center. Even if you’re not an expert, she says, you can have a big impact. “Whatever you do, as little as it may seem, it may mean . . . the difference between life in the street and life in a shelter,” she says. “We [lawyers] have so much power to help.”

As for the extra hours? “I don’t see it as more work,” she says. “I truly enjoy it.”


*As required of all federal government attorneys engaging in pro bono legal services, attorneys take cases in their individual capacities without involvement by their respective agencies.

Lauren Schenkman is a journalist and fiction writer. Her articles and stories have been published in Science, The New York Times Magazine, TED Ideas, Granta, and the Kenyon Review, among other places.

Know someone whose life and career would make for an interesting Member Spotlight? Contact Thai Phi Le at tle@dcbar.org.