Washington Lawyer

Feature: The Pro Bono Effect: A Son’s Battle for His Piece of the American Dream

From Washington Lawyer, June 2010

By Thai Phi Le

When Rafael Edelin passed away in 2006, his house was supposed to go to his only son, Rashad Levett, only he never got around to creating a will. So the house sat there, with “renters”—who previously had paid to live in the house—squatting in it, residing for free.

For Levett, owning the place was not about the monetary value of the property, it was about the home in which his father had spent nearly half of his life. It was about the small room upstairs with posters of the Los Angeles Lakers masking the white walls, a room Levett called home all through high school.

“That house meant a lot to my dad. I’m not going to let it go down the drain. My dad told me before he passed, ‘You pass it down to your kids. I don’t want you to sell that house because you’ll have somewhere to go no matter what happens,’” Levett recalls. “That’s roots. That’s my family.”

Nowhere to Go
Not knowing what to do, Levett turned to friends and family for advice. For nearly a year, he made phone calls, visited a few lawyers, and searched for a program to help him despite his limited resources. “I never thought I was going to get the house. I just didn’t have a good outlook on everything,” he says.

During a visit to a legal services provider, he thought he had found an answer. The staff told him it was giving his case to a lawyer who would offer services at a discounted rate. “I went to the lawyer’s office. He talked about charging me $10,000. I thought this was a program that would help me because I don’t have the income [to afford a lawyer],” he recalls. “Honestly, if I had $10,000—I was so desperate at that time—I would have given it to him, but I didn’t.”

Any money Levett had, he needed; $10,000 was not money sitting in the bank. It was food on the dinner table. It was housing for his wife and three children. It was diapers for his 7-month-old baby girl. He remembers thinking, “It is over . . . There ain’t no program out there to help me.”

Discouraged, he washed his hands clean of the situation and tried to move forward without the house, “[but] in the back of my mind, I was always thinking about that house,” he says. “Something’s got to give.”

And soon, something did give. While speaking to a lawyer in a courtroom on another matter, the issue of the house came up and Levett was told to call the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program.

Access to Justice
For low-income residents in Washington, D.C., pro bono services are necessary to help them secure some of the most basic human needs. The economic turmoil of the past few years has turned their poor conditions into often desperate ones. More and more people are losing their jobs, facing foreclosures, and watching their bank accounts and retirement funds dwindle.

Rationing Justice: The Effect of the Recession on Access to Justice in the District of Columbia, a November 2009 joint report of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, showed that even as the number of low-income residents seeking assistance grew in 2009, legal services resources were slashed. Funding for legal assistance in the District decreased by $4.5 million—more than 25 percent. [1]

To meet the growing needs of this underserved population, the Pro Bono Program created four resource centers over the past six years to aid low-income District residents on pressing issues where a substantive gap in services exists. One of those gaps is probate law.

In the summer of 2005, about a year before Levett’s father died, the Pro Bono Program formed a probate working group to evaluate the need for specific types of probate services and determine which of those services could best be provided by pro bono attorneys. In that group was Susan G. Blumenthal, counsel at Bryan Cave LLP. “I thought it was a great idea from the start,” she says. “Who doesn’t have a probate matter? It’s something that affects everyone … and nobody has experience in it until they have to go through that unfortunate process.”

A Different Kind of Center
The probate working group determined that while some individuals with probate matters may require long-term representation or have the funds to hire an attorney, many others could greatly benefit from legal information and brief services. The group wanted to build a center that is different from its counterparts in other cities around the country, which act more like a library than a provider of legal services. Much like the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, established by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program in 2004, the group wanted to go beyond offering general guidance on court procedures and answers to frequently asked questions. The goal was to actually resolve legal issues if possible—no Band-Aids.

The Tax Sale Resource Center and Consumer Law Resource Center, which opened in 2007 and 2008, respectively, were created in the same vein. All are hosted by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and provide individual help targeted to specific branches of the court.

“We have access. If someone needs help drafting a complaint, we can literally walk them down to the clerk’s office and help them get that done. We can provide that kind of detailed advice,” says Scott K. Dasovich, a lawyer volunteer at the Consumer Law Resource Center and an associate at Williams & Connolly LLP, which helped launch the center. “A lot of us have the experience to be able to help with these basic kinds of issues for people, give them very specific advice, answer their questions, and really help them take the concrete next step they need.”

For Blumenthal, that type of personal help means extensive, one-on-one meetings. “We have the luxury of time. We can spend an hour with the person. We can have them bring all the documents that are needed for us to sit and look through them so we can truly explain … what the situation is and what they need to do,” Blumenthal says.

For Levett, that type of personal help would mean keeping his family home.

A Life-Changing Program
When Levett arrived at the Probate Resource Center, he already had been through a screening process with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. The Pro Bono Program handles all of the support issues, Blumenthal says. “We just go in, and it’s ready for us.” Having a solid structure in place leaves more time for lawyer volunteers such as Blumenthal and Dasovich to work directly with their clients. In addition, the technical support provided by the Pro Bono Program’s attorney staff is a critical component to providing high-quality legal assistance because most of the volunteers staffing the various resource centers do not have expertise in the particular areas of service.

Levett then showed Blumenthal his great-grandmother’s will, which stated that his father was to receive the house, but it was never deeded over to him. He explained that his father never had a will. “I didn’t know what was going on, so she really broke it down to me,” Levett recalls. “I thank God for the D.C. Bar Pro Bono [Program]. It made it so easy … I felt like, OK, I’ve got somebody in my corner. This program is going to help me. When you got somebody in your corner like that after being turned down by so many people, it feels good.”

By his fourth meeting, Levett had completed the paperwork and received signatures from all necessary parties to be appointed executor of both his grandmother’s and his father’s estates. He is working to get the deed transferred into his name. For the deed work, Blumenthal referred Levett to a real estate attorney who ran a title search for him at a discounted rate.

Being able to put some of this behind him, Levett can focus on repairing the damage to the house by squatters who vacated the property in January 2010. Blumenthal also was going to refer Levett to the Landlord Tenant Resource Center to help oust the squatters if they refuse to leave voluntarily, but it never came to that. Levett hopes to be in the house by summer. “I’m really taking my time with it, making sure it’s right before I bring my baby in there.”

With a smile on his face, he adds, “As far as me and my family, it’s a life-changing program. Nobody thought I could do it. They thought it was impossible, but here I am.”

One of Many
Levett is only one of thousands of people touched by these resource centers. In 2009 the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program helped 15,000 District residents, and the numbers are growing. The Probate Resource Center saw a 20 percent increase in clients over the past year. In its first year, from October 2008 to June 2009, the Consumer Law Resource Center served 365 people.

There was the woman in her 40s who, with Dasovich’s expertise, won a settlement against a check-cashing facility regarding her unemployment benefits check. Then there was the man Dasovich helped to file a small claims complaint seeking compensation for painting services from a homeowner who refused to pay.

The centers benefit not only the clients but the lawyer volunteers as well, “Especially on an associate level—you’re sitting and directly interacting with the client,” Dasovich says. “You’re giving immediately, and you’re finding an answer immediately. You have a person standing in front of you, and you absolutely just need to help this person figure out what the next step is and accomplish it … It’s the sense you get when you walk out that you’ve really helped people.”

Blumenthal echoes this sentiment. “Sometimes, these people have really been from place to place to place. For the first time, when they get to a resource center, there’s actually time to sit down with them and go through the documents and everything they’ve got,” she says. “For the first time, they have a plan of action and the matter can be taken care of. They’re going to get results. That’s what you want for them, to have it taken care of, finally. You want this to be the last place that they have to go to.”

D.C. Bar staff writer Thai Phi Le wrote about biking to work in the May 2010 issue of Washington Lawyer.

[1] www.dcaccesstojustice.org/files/Rationing_Justice_

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