In the Face of Crisis, Bar Members Step Up to Serve D.C.’s Most Vulnerable

By Jeremy Conrad 

March 27, 2020

As the District of Columbia continues to hunker down during the coronavirus pandemic, clients of local legal aid organizations face significant challenges, forcing attorneys to adapt rapidly to meet their clients’ needs even with resources stretched thin. 

Although attorneys address a wide range of matters for the District’s most vulnerable populations, one common theme is their commitment to their clients. The D.C. Bar spoke with some of these Bar members who continue to serve the community, providing inspiration and hope during an otherwise bleak period.  

A Public Defender’s Dilemma 

Rayyan Ghuma is a staff attorney with the Parole Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Most trials and hearings have been suspended pursuant to a March 23 court order, but parole hearings continue to occur. The Public Defender Service’s mission at the moment is twofold: to advocate for a reduction in arrests and detention and to push for the release of those currently detained, many of whom are held for technical parole violations, nonviolent crimes, or confinement pending trial.  

Ghuma spends her days attending parole hearings and visiting clients in jail while she advocates for their release. Although she is taking precautions to preserve her health, the environment frustrates many efforts, particularly since her clients are unable to act protect themselves. 

 “Concepts like social distancing cannot be carried out in facilities where there are large numbers of individuals confined to small areas. The idea of staying six feet away from someone seems easy enough while in the community, but not while incarcerated,” Ghuma says. Regardless of the personal risks, Ghuma says her clients’ health is her number one priority during the crisis.  

Her commitment is shared by Avis Buchanan, director of the Public Defender Service, whose concerns include the possibility that attorneys themselves may unwittingly contribute to the spread of coronavirus. 

“It’s a unique challenge representing clients where you yourself may pose a risk to their safety,” Buchanan says. Balancing the need to interact with clients to zealously represent their case with precautions that must be taken to preserve the health of all involved has been a delicate process.  

Legal Aid’s Concerns 

Drake Hagner (002)Drake Hagner, senior staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, self-quarantined early in the crisis with a non-coronavirus respiratory ailment and has been telecommuting. Despite her bout of illness, she says she’s busier than ever. Virtual meetings, trainings, and town hall events have been conducted almost daily over the past weeks as Legal Aid’s Public Benefits Unit gathers data and informs members of impacted industries, labor leaders, and the city’s political leadership. 

Hagner anticipates an unprecedented recession, one in which claims for cash assistance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, health insurance, and unemployment are expected to rise dramatically. 

Her prediction is supported by data. The number of new unemployment claims received by the D.C. Department of Employment Services in recent weeks is rapidly approaching last year’s annual total. Hagner is undaunted, however. “We are used to working with little, used to working against the odds,” she says. 

Post-Disaster Preparedness 

Brian Rohal_150x200Brian Rohal, an eviction defense and housing law staff attorney with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, is preparing for problems looming on the horizon. Although he applauds some of the mitigation actions such as the March 16 court order halting evictions, he expects that the inability of many to pay rent will result in a post-crisis avalanche of claims. He’s also worried that living conditions will deteriorate in the interim as landlords have a reduced interest in maintaining properties that aren’t generating income. 

Rohal is working to ensure that new and existing clients can access information and document issues as they arise. The Pro Bono Center established a phone line (202-780-2575) to the Landlord Tenant Resource Center for this purpose, and Rohal’s days are spent on the computer trying to maintain communication with clients and coworkers. 

As a hands-on attorney, the transition is trying for him. “The hardest thing is learning how to keep in touch with everyone else, stay informed, not end up siloed or lose relationships as we end up so spread out.” 

Ways You Can Make a Difference 

Whatever their area of focus, attorneys representing the indigent are uniform in their expectation that the need for legal assistance will grow dramatically throughout the crisis and beyond. Those looking to support their efforts have a multitude of opportunities to contribute. 

The Public Defender Service encourages city residents to communicate with their community leaders about supporting efforts to reduce arrest and detention where it isn’t necessary for the public safety. Information about its activities and the impact of coronavirus can be found on its website.  

The Legal Aid Society anticipates a disruption of the organization’s annual fundraising activities alongside a dramatic increase in need. Interested parties can donate and find information on volunteer and pro bono opportunities with the organization on its website

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center also expects a dramatic expansion in the need for attorney volunteers and resources even after the crisis ends. Visit the Pro Bono Center’s webpage to learn more about volunteering and donating. Although cases won’t be heard until after May 15 in D.C. Superior Court due to court closures (absent an emergency hearing), the Pro Bono Center is pairing attorney volunteers with clients to begin preparation immediately. 

Up-to-date information about many other legal services providers can be found here.