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Pro Bono Partnership Luncheon Recap: Reaffirming Our Commitment to Public Service

By John Murph

November 5, 2018

Representatives from more than 100 law firms and federal agencies came together on October 25 for the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s annual Pro Bono Partnership Luncheon. With the theme “Delivering Access to Justice That Transforms Lives,” the luncheon was held as part of DC Pro Bono Week celebration. 

Rebecca K. Troth, executive director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, recalled that the Pro Bono Partnership, a network of law firms and federal agencies committed to providing pro bono legal services, began with 40 firms in 1991. “Now in 2018, our membership includes 103 law firms and four federal agencies,” Troth said. 

The luncheon featured opening remarks by D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert E. Morin, who underscored the importance of the Pro Bono Partnership in a city that has a large concentration of lawyers, but also a large population of people who could not afford legal advice or representation. 

Morin applauded Esther Lim, president of the D.C. Bar, for her commitment to increasing pro bono representation.  

“I think as lawyers, we have the ability and the responsibility to help people,” Lim said after the luncheon. “And in the District of Columbia, where the access to justice gap is growing and is so enormous, each of us can make a difference. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center does an excellent job in engaging lawyers. And I believe that the D.C. Bar has a vast membership that is talented and committed and that can be engaged in serving our community by helping our neighbors. That’s been a priority of mine. And through the newly formed Pro Bono Task Force, we can explore ways in which we can remove barriers and make it easier for attorneys to do pro bono work to help our neighbors and to uplift our community.” 

In his speech, Morin talked about the court’s efforts to increase pro bono representation, including appointing Judge Lynn Leibovitz as pro bono liaison and establishing a pro bono panel. 

“I’m glad to announce that Sidley Austin LLP is the first law firm to offer representation on that panel,” Morin said. “We have the D.C. Bar, the [District] courts; we also have the Access to Justice Commission — all making it a priority to increase pro bono representation. Judge Leibovitz and I are going from law firm to law firm to recruit lawyers to come down for our court.” 

 

Fixing the Access to Justice Gap
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland gave the luncheon keynote address, emphasizing the ongoing need for pro bono legal services in the District. 

While it may seem like he was “preaching to the choir” in a room filled with attorneys already committed to pro bono work, Garland said that “sometimes the choir needs bucking up.”  

“Today, in more than 75 percent of all civil cases in this country, at least one party does not have a lawyer. Although we live in a metropolitan area with the highest numbers of lawyers per capita, the problem is not any less serious here,” Garland said. 

Garland noted that more than 90 percent of tenants who appear in landlord and tenant court do not have lawyers, and 80 percent of people who appear in family court are not represented by counsel. “These figures are hardly surprising. In this city of almost 700,000 [residents], more than 100,000 people have incomes below the federal poverty level, which is only $2,510 for a family of four. Those residents can barely make ends meet, let alone afford the cost of a lawyer for even the most common legal problems,” he said.  

Garland praised the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s accomplishments over the past fiscal year as outlined in its latest annual report. “This is the best annual report that I have ever read. This is not a glossy, feel-good report with vague generalities about the good work the [Pro Bono] Center does. This annual report is a serious and specific catalog of the ways in which the Center can help lawyers make a difference in the provision of legal services in court,” he said. 

Garland cited the Pro Bono Center’s Legal Information Help Line, which assisted 12,918 callers in 2018; the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, which served 4,221 clients; the Advice & Referral Clinic, which helped 1,428 clients; and the Nonprofit & Small Business Legal Assistance Programs, which provided critical legal help to more than 500 community-based nonprofits and small businesses.  

“In total, the Center served [more than] 20,000 individuals, nonprofits, and small businesses in fiscal year 2018,” Garland said, who ended his speech with a call to action for the attendees to recruit more colleagues to do pro bono work. 

Melody Webb, pro bono counsel for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP), was struck by Garland’s strong commitment to equal access to justice for everyone. The NLSP is a D.C. nonprofit law firm that provides free legal information, advice, and representation to low-income D.C. residents. “I’m hoping that [Garland’s] speech will lead more attorneys to take on some [pro bono] cases in some areas that they may not be familiar with,” Webb said. 

Murray Scheel, a senior staff attorney at Whitman-Walker Health, said that Garland’s speech was “stirring toward the end.” At Whitman-Walker, Scheel focuses on elder issues that many LGBTQ members age 50 and older face, such as estate planning, power of attorney, and insurance matters involving transitioning into Medicare. “[Garland] reminded all of us about why we went to law school,” Scheel said. “[He] put the work that we do in a much broader context in providing access to justice.”