Washington Lawyer

D.C. Bar Foundation: Investing in Access to Justice for All

From Washington Lawyer, November 2013

Interview by Thai Phi Le

Since its establishment in 1977, the D.C. Bar Foundation has been a critical ally in the fight for access to justice. With contributions from both individual lawyers and law firms, as well as funding from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, the Bar Foundation has provided grants to nonprofit organizations and programs in the District of Columbia aimed at meeting the legal needs of the city’s most disadvantaged residents.

In recent years, as the legal services community faced tough economic times and saw contributions drop significantly, the Bar Foundation has had to examine how to fund local legal services providers strategically. It gathered other stakeholders in the legal services community and created priority guidelines. Meanwhile, many of the District’s most impoverished residents continue to struggle for access to justice, and the need for contributions to make legal help available to them is greater than ever.

In a conversation with Washington Lawyer, D.C. Bar Foundation Board President Marc L. Fleischaker, chair emeritus at Arent Fox LLP, and Bar Foundation Executive Director Katherine L. "Katia" Garrett, who is stepping down from her role in January, discussed the foundation’s work, its plans, and how attorneys can help continue its mission.


The Bar Foundation’s Web site features a video titled "We Invest in Justice." Is that part of an outreach plan?

Katia: What we have struggled with is how to tell the story of the Bar Foundation so that people truly understand what we do. We wanted to have a way of making clear how our work matters in the lives of individual clients, the people struggling with poverty who don’t have the help they need to solve their problem and those who lack access to justice.

The video shows how our work makes a difference. [It features] a client who would have lost his home had there been no legal services lawyer . . . who wouldn’t have been there had there been no grant to the organization to hire him or her, and who wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay at the job had there been no [Loan Repayment Assistance Program] from the Bar Foundation. All the pieces come together as one.


How many organizations did the Bar Foundation fund this year?

Marc: About 40 grants all together. Some organizations get grants under both of our grant programs.

Katia: We have two grant programs, and awards are made separately. One is with funding we get from the D.C. government through our Access to Justice Grants Program. Those grants are awarded in March. At the end of our fiscal year in June, we award our D.C. Legal Services Grants, which are funded by contributions from law firms and individuals and from IOLTA program revenue. We awarded roughly 40 grants to about 25 organizations: 20 grants under the Access to Justice Grants Program and another 20 under the D.C. Legal Services Grants Program.


What are your primary criteria for choosing an organization to fund?

Katia: For both grant programs, we look for healthy, sustainable organizations based in the District serving D.C. residents who are low-income or underserved. We examine the focus and organizational strength of each applicant and its legal services program. Are they meeting an unmet need? Is there overlap with any organization in the community? How sustainable is the work that these organizations are performing? We look at each organization’s board structure, its finances, the way it manages its legal work, and the way it integrates within the community. Is it collaborating with other organizations? We want to make sure that the investment we’re making is a sound and strong one.


What new programs or organizations received grants this year?

Katia: One is a very exciting program that Ayuda is doing, Project END, which is a public–private partnership launched to end notario deceit. Notarios in Latin America are people who step into the shoes of a lawyer and provide assistance in the legal system to individuals. In this country, that function doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, nonlawyers will hold themselves out as notarios and often end up simply taking money from Latino residents in the District and not providing services that people think they have obtained.

Ayuda has done a terrific job in building a true collaborative project to address this by working with the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, Georgetown [University Law Center], the [Federal Trade Commission], and others involved.

Is the Bar Foundation still doing site visits this year?

Marc: There is very close monitoring of all the grantees. Many of them have site visits every year. Board members, staff members, and an advisory group participate in those as well. I’ve gone on a couple. It is a great learning experience for the board members to understand what is being accomplished with our funds and with the organization’s legal services programs overall. It’s a way to get more in-depth to make sure the organization is running properly and the money is being used for the purpose it’s supposed to be used for. We’re very small-staffed, which is why the board is an active board and the advisory committee is an active advisory committee.

How many people are on the Bar Foundation’s staff?

Katia: There are a total of five staff members.

Marc: What that means is that we give away more than 90 percent of the money we take in. There’s very little overhead. That’s intentional because the point of this is to give money to the service organizations. At the same time, the staff works at an incredibly high level to ensure that the Bar Foundation’s programs are of the highest caliber. It’s impressive how much outstanding work is done by such a small staff.

What were some of the things that impressed you during your site visits?

Katia: I’m every day impressed with what our grantees do, how thoughtful, how client-centered they are, and how they are able to attract and retain such dedicated lawyers to do the work in the community.

Marc: I’m impressed with the dedication and hard work of the underpaid lawyers who work at the organizations, who make careers of this. It’s a fantastic commitment they’ve made. We’re trying to help them to the extent we can.

What operational strategies did you notice during these site visits that other organizations may find helpful when they apply for grants?

Marc: We don’t try to dictate how nonprofit service organizations should run. There’s a very careful analysis of the organization not only at the beginning when the grant is made, but also during the grant period to make sure the grant is being used properly. We look at the financials to make sure the organizations are being run appropriately however they decide to do it, that they have good boards, and that their boards are providing good oversight. In terms of how exactly they operate, it’s really up to them, as long as they’re exercising their fiduciary responsibilities appropriately.

We’ve run into a couple organizations where we’ve had to intervene and we give them conditional grants. [We tell them] we need to make sure that you deal with this particular issue. We’re not going to give you the grant until you [resolve the issue], or we’re not going to give you the grant on an annual basis. We’ll give it to you quarterly so we can audit you periodically.

How often is an intervention warranted?

Katia: I don’t see what we do as an intervention as much as we try to step in to provide support where we can, to ask questions that perhaps the organization needs to focus on, and, if necessary, to take appropriate steps both to protect the funding that we have invested and to try to make sure that the services to the clients can continue uninterrupted.

Marc: In one sense we intervene with 100 percent of the organizations. When we give the grant, we look carefully at what they’re doing. My sense is that maybe only two or three [grantees] each year get into a situation where we have to do something serious in terms of cutting off a grant or placing a grantee under closer monitoring. We do what we have to do to make sure the money is being spent properly and that the terms of the grant are being met. Once that happens, intervention is minimal.

Times have changed since your last interview with Washington Lawyer in 2006. How has the current economic environment affected your funding decisions?

Katia: We have less money—let’s just start right there. We’re no longer in a position to encourage organizations to apply for increased funding. In 2008 the interest rate started to plummet. Our revenue started to drop. We’ve dropped from $2.4 million in IOLTA revenue in 2008 to a projected half a million dollars in the current fiscal year.The federal funds target rate has dropped from 5.25 percent to zero.

When the economy started to take a pretty steep downturn, we convened a series of listening sessions with the legal services community to understand what they were doing to address what they would be facing and to help us develop a set of grant-making priorities, which we put in place in December 2008. They have guided our private-side grant making since. The notion was that we didn’t want to make a 30 percent or 40 percent cut to every grant that we had been making, but rather to strategically invest in the legal services community and develop guidelines for how to make the hard decisions.

How many listening sessions did you hold?

Katia: It ended up being a total of about four. We prepared a write-up of the listening sessions so that everybody could see what information we had before us. We published and disseminated our guidelines. One of the hallmarks of our grant making is that we are very transparent in what we do. There is no smoke-filled backroom where decisions are made. We have published priorities. We have guidelines and a very strict conflict-of-interest policy.

It’s widely noted that the D.C. pro bono culture is unlike that of any other jurisdiction. What makes it unique?

Marc: I agree with the premise of the D.C. law firm pro bono culture—it has been traditionally the best in the country, and I think it remains so. On the other hand, I don’t want to insult other cities’ legal services providers. To say that ours is somehow unique or better than anyone else’s isn’t true. We have some great legal services providers in this city. We should all be very proud of them.

In my opinion, Washington has a great pro bono culture because there are an awful lot of lawyers here who believe in public service. That’s how they got to Washington in the first place. Many of us who have been in law firms our whole career decided there’s still a way for us to do public service. I’m not unique in that regard. I think that’s why there’s such a commitment to this in Washington law firms, which I hope we can sustain as law firms become more corporate, more international, and Washington is no longer a headquarter for as many law firms as it used to be.

What can law firms do to help the Bar Foundation?

Marc: Law firms need to ratchet up their commitment to the foundation. By helping the legal services organizations, they help low-income individuals. By doing that, we help the city move forward. It’s in the interest of the law firms that want to participate not only as good citizens, but as profitable organizations to make sure that there is a good legal network for everybody in the city, not just for the wealthy people.

It’s not just law firms that need to increase their commitment. We’re trying to encourage corporate offices, and not just headquarters, but lobbying offices and others. All of us are very fortunate and privileged and have an interest both personally and in the health of the city to make sure the organizations operate appropriately. We’re pushing to increase corporate fundraising. We have some board members who are helping out with that.

Why should law firms donate to the Bar Foundation?

Marc: I’ve heard it estimated that the Bar Foundation contributes up to 30 percent of some of the organizations’ budgets. We have a very important role to play in making sure that they continue to operate. We don’t want to have that mean that law firms give less money to the organizations directly. We do think there is a very positive role we can serve if law firms want to give money, but they don’t know who to give the money to. They give it to us, we can allocate it, and it goes to these groups in a certain proportion. On the other hand, law firms work directly with most of the organizations that we fund. We want that to continue. We are not legal services providers.

Katia: Let me build on what Marc said because he’s absolutely right. First of all, we fund the network. We study the network. We know the network. We know that there are some legal services organizations that have a very challenging time developing the same kinds of pro bono relationships with law firms. Those reasons are typically one of three. One is that it’s a legal services organization that serves primarily people whose first language is not English. There aren’t a lot of bilingual or multilingual lawyers in our legal community. The number of lawyers in any given law firm who have the capacity to volunteer with these organizations is small, making it hard for those groups to develop the same kind of relationships.

Second, some organizations work with clients or on issues that might be seen as less popular, less attractive, including perhaps inmates, ex-offenders, those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes. At the Bar Foundation, we see it as our obligation to make sure that there’s a level playing field for all organizations regardless of the clients they serve, whether or not they have a tougher road to hoe in developing pro bono relationships.

The third reason is simply where the organizations are located in the District. If they’re providing services in areas that aren’t in the regular orbit of lawyers working downtown, they’re going to have a tough time getting pro bono lawyers to come to their offices. That’s often where the need is the greatest. That’s where the Bar Foundation comes in.

Tell us more about the Loan Repayment Assistance Program, also known as LRAP.

Katia: There are two pots of money for LRAP, which is available for poverty lawyers. One is from the District [government] and the other is from money we raise. [New graduates] leave law school with six figures of educational debt. [Potential poverty lawyers are] looking at starting salaries of $45,000 a year. Both the cost of living and the cost of an education are going up, but the salary that you can get as a public interest lawyer is flat. LRAP truly makes it possible for folks to afford to take jobs in the public interest sector, and stay in their jobs even when they’re thinking about starting a family, even when they’re thinking about moving out of the group house and into a place of their own.

What difference has LRAP made in attracting and retaining public interest attorneys?

Katia: What we’ve heard from our grantees is that they’ve been able to attract a broader, more diverse group of lawyers to their organizations. With roughly 50 D.C. poverty lawyers receiving LRAP awards each year, it makes a difference. We’ve heard there’s greater stability and greater longevity within the program.

In December 2011, a Washington Post article noted that you were then only able to cover about half of the monthly loan repayments. Have you seen improvements? Do you still need more funding for the program?

Katia: We are in absolute need of more funding. There simply aren’t enough funds available to fully fund the need under the Bar Foundation’s LRAP. Each of LRAP’s funding sources has different eligibility requirements. The D.C. government-funded LRAP awards are limited to D.C. residents: legal aid lawyers who both live and work in the District of Columbia. Our program reaches lawyers who may live in Maryland or Virginia, but work in the District on behalf of D.C. residents. We have been watching as more public interest lawyers move out of the District as housing gets more expensive. The demand for the foundation’s program has increased. Because IOLTA revenue has shrunk, reducing the funding we have for LRAP and for grants, the Bar Foundation has been able to fund roughly 50 percent of the overall need.

Go Casual for Justice is a fun, easy way for firms to help fund LRAP. What are some of the success stories?

Marc: We have a success story here [at Arent Fox]. It was expensive! [Laughs] You only have to pay $5 to participate. We said that we would take out to lunch any lawyer who gave over $100. We ended up taking out to lunch maybe 50 lawyers because they gave that kind of money. It cost [Arent Fox Chair Mark Katz] and me quite a bit! In addition to the firm matching some of the funds, at Arent Fox we give breakfast to everybody who participates. There’s law firm commitment to try to make sure that we are competitive. I was really annoyed last year when Sidley [Austin] beat us.

Katia: There’s friendly competition that has emerged from some of the top participants, with some friendly jockeying for first place as the firm with the highest level of individual contributions to Go Casual for Justice.

One of the things I really like about Go Casual for Justice is it’s open to everybody. You don’t have to be a lawyer to participate. You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand that access to justice is everybody’s issue. The fact that every person on staff can commit and make a contribution to support access to justice is truly gratifying.


Aside from the funding aspect of your mission, what are some of the Bar Foundation’s other goals that people may not be aware of?

Katia: Training and technical assistance is an important one. For example, we provide scholarships to litigation skills training that the Washington Council of Lawyers runs annually. We contract with trainers to come in and provide specialized training within the legal services community. One of our most popular trainings is the supervising legal services training that we run through the Sargent Shriver National Center. That provides direct, hands-on training for supervisors at every one of our grantees at no cost to them on how to effectively supervise, provide feedback, and develop the staff that they are responsible for.

We also have very strong relationships with other members of the philanthropic community. We communicate regularly about common grantees and common issues. Harnessing other resources to support the network and connecting our grantees with resources in the community that can strengthen their work is another part of our job that isn’t visible perhaps at the law firm or donor level, but is important nonetheless.

Marc: One other thing that we do, particularly with a lot of the smaller grantees, is a little more intangible, and that is the oversight we give to help them in their own governance. We review their governance. We give advice as to how they can make their own board stronger and how they can do better fundraising.

Katia, as you prepare to leave in January, what are some of the accomplishments of which you are most proud?

Katia: I have to say that so many of the things that we have touched on [during this interview] are pieces of the Bar Foundation that have grown in the last eight years. That we reached out to the community. We’ve asked, "What do you need? What would make a difference? How could we play a more significant role in strengthening the legal services community?" The fact that we’ve been able to implement so many of those things, I take a lot of pride in that.

Marc: Katia has been an incredible [executive director] and we’re going to miss her. Since she’s been executive director, we’ve given out nearly $30 million. She’s had a tremendous impact on the legal services community in the city, and we couldn’t be more grateful for what she’s done for all of us. Having said that, we have undertaken a process to find a successor. We’re confident we’ll find the right person to do this. It’s going to be very hard to step into Katia’s shoes, but we’re confident we’ll find a good person and the Bar Foundation will continue to function well.

How will the transition of leadership work?

Katia: One of the real advantages of being a funder is you see what works and what doesn’t work at nonprofits. So we’ve had a transition plan in place for a few years, and it kicked into gear when I met with Marc and the board and talked about my plans to move on. It’s going to be exciting to see the next leader of the Bar Foundation come in and carry the organization forward for the next 10 years of growth and impact.

Are there any specific areas or initiatives the Bar Foundation will focus on in the coming years? 

Marc: The main one is to increase the money that we have to give away, and sustain and increase the network of nonprofit services in the city. We’ve been going through a long-term strategic planning process looking at those issues. How do we make sure that legal services get adequate funding for the next decade, and what is the role of the Bar Foundation in making sure of that? We’ll be working on that aggressively over the next year. The new leader ought to have a lot of input in the way that is being operated.

In the last few years, we’ve been funding about $4 million worth of grants. Our goal is to take that to $5 million in the next couple years and go beyond that. Hopefully, that will enable the sustainability . . . and growth of the legal services community in various areas. We’re also always looking for innovative ideas from grantees, just like the notario fraud program.

For the individual lawyer reading this, how can he or she help?

Katia: They can visit the D.C. Bar Foundation's Web site and click on the "Donate Now" button. There are 100,000 members of the D.C. Bar. If every lawyer gave what they could, our legal services network would be set. It would be able to grow. It would be able to meet the needs of our community. We wouldn’t be looking at organizations, working with them as they trim their staff, their services, or their hours and reshape how they deliver their services. We’d be meeting with them to work out how to support them as they design how to grow, expand, and meet the needs more creatively, systemically, and sustainably.

As a guideline for what people should give, I’m going to quote one of my early colleagues, Irv Kator. He said to us, "Just give until it hurts." I think that’s a good guideline. You should give until it hurts because your gift is going to help alleviate the pain that someone in our community has suffered.

Marc: Don’t only give money, give your time. Lawyers—young lawyers, partners in law firms, or retired lawyers—ought to give. Don’t assume that there’s not a role for you. There are roles in whichever part of your career you’re in that can be very valuable and help these organizations.

If you were to write the D.C. Bar Foundation’s memoir in six words, what would it be?

Katia: We help D.C.’s poor get justice.

Marc: Help your neighbor. Help your community.

Reach Thai Phi Le at tle@dcbar.org.


As Washington Lawyer went to press, the Bar Foundation was seeking to identify candidates to fill Katia Garrett’s position. For more information, visit the D.C. Bar Foundation's Web site.