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Pro Bono Expert Mentor Marc Borbely: We Need to Empower Tenants

April 3, 2019


Marc Borbely (back, left) is an expert mentor in housing law cases at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic. He is pictured with staff of the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center, a law firm he founded that represents only D.C. tenants. 

In the April issue of Washington Lawyer, D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center principal founder Marc A. Borbely discussed how pro bono attorneys are helping to fill gaps in the delivery of legal services. Since 2011, Borbely has been a volunteer mentor with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic, whose work is principally carried out by volunteers from participating law firms and federal agencies.

Borbely said he founded the D.C. Tenants’ Rights Center — the only private law firm in the District of Columbia that represents only tenants — to increase access to legal services for those who cannot afford counsel. At D.C. Superior Court, only 5 percent to 10 percent of tenants are represented, while 90 percent to 95 percent of landlords show up to court with a lawyer.

“Navigating the complexities of landlord–tenant court is an overwhelming and scary experience for most tenants,” Borbely said. “Tenants in the District have significant legal protections, but if they don’t know about them or don’t know how to exercise their rights, those protections are meaningless.”

This is why pro bono attorneys play a crucial role in addressing the huge disparity in legal representation, Borbely said. “Lawyers are usually better prepared and better equipped to work the system than tenants with no legal training. A lawyer can help a tenant understand the legal and evidentiary framework: What entitles a tenant to a rent reduction? How much of a reduction should the tenant request? What facts are relevant? What evidence is admissible? A lawyer can also help streamline a presentation of housing code violations to a judge or jury, and a lawyer can bring a level of detachment and credibility that often is persuasive to a factfinder,” he added.

In addition to increasing access to justice, Borbely said the legal services community can also help empower clients, giving them the tools they need to avoid or resolve future disputes without the help of a lawyer.

“One thing I think I could do better in my own representation of tenants is involve the tenant more in the day-to-day litigation,” Borbely said. “Not every tenant wants this, but some might appreciate being more involved in the process, so they’re better equipped to handle the situation without me next time.” This might include explaining laws and procedures to clients, sharing contacts in government agencies, giving tenants the tools to communicate more effectively with their landlords going forward, and helping them organize into associations.

“One model of lawyering is for the lawyer to be an expert and a problem solver. But if there’s an expert fixing things, then once the immediate problem is solved, the client is no more powerful than before. If the heat stops working again, or if the landlord wants to raise the rent illegally again in the future, the tenant will just end up needing another lawyer’s help,” Borbely said.

At the Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic, Borbely tries to be a resource for attorney volunteers in housing cases. “I think most of us want to help make our justice system more just. I’m excited about continuing to work with the Pro Bono Center and others who are trying to find ways to make justice more of a reality for more people,” he said.

In fiscal year 2017–2018, the Advocacy & Justice Clinic provided full legal representation to 311 clients with support from 22 law firms and many federal government agencies.

Interested in serving as a mentor or attorney volunteer with the Advocacy & Justice Clinic? Email Vanessa Batters-Thompson at [email protected].