Washington Lawyer

The Pro Bono Effect: It's Never Too Late to Make a Difference

From Washington Lawyer, November 2013

By Mary G. Clark

The statistics are there for all of us to see. Of the more than 632,000 D.C. residents, 18.2 percent live below the poverty line. In these times of economic recession, many people in our community are struggling. They’re in constant search of a steady paycheck, or for public benefits when disability or illness makes employment impossible. Pursued by bill collectors or landlords seeking to evict them and their families, they often find themselves in our local courts without lawyers to guide them.

The Superior Court of the District of Columbia has tried to make the Landlord Tenant and Small Claims Branches—where many litigants are poor and unrepresented—as "user friendly" as possible for pro se parties. Even so, court procedures remain dauntingly foreign, and the substantive law rules that might assist their cause are out of reach without the help of lawyers. Attorney volunteers help address these needs through two programs organized by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program: the Landlord Tenant Resource Center and the Consumer Law Resource Center.

I became a regular volunteer in 2007 when I was preparing to retire from my position as a litigation partner with Williams & Connolly LLP. I was seeking meaningful ways to help, and other firm attorneys and paralegals were participating in both programs. Although I began my pro bono career as my private practice was winding down, it has proved to be one of the most satisfying parts of my life as a lawyer. It is never too late to pursue new goals or to give back to our communities.

The Landlord Tenant Resource Center, which assisted 5,327 residents last year, draws people from many different backgrounds with a variety of problems. We see tenants in need of immediate help to avoid eviction or correct appalling housing conditions. There’s the man who lost his job who spends and sells everything he has trying to pay rent and is now facing eviction. There’s the mother trying to raise her children in a rodent-infested apartment. The number of housing code violations is startling. Inoperable plumbing. Broken heaters. Doors that won’t shut. Windows with gaping holes.

Tenants have extensive rights under D.C. law, but many do not know it. They think that when they receive an eviction notice from their landlord, they have to leave. They don’t realize that a landlord must give tenants a proper 30-day notice, serve the complaint in the way required by statute, and obtain a judgment for possession before an eviction can happen. They don’t realize that the landlord’s failure to correct serious housing code violations can be a defense to eviction for nonpayment of rent.

On the landlord side, we meet people who generously offer to let someone stay in their apartment or house. The person may become abusive, cause problems, or refuse to pay. Here the goal is to evict the tenant without violating the law and exposing the landlord to liability.

In both situations, for a landlord or a tenant, volunteers provide customers with information they need to navigate the legal process. In many cases, we give them the paperwork and point them in the right direction, and they are off and running. But when that is not enough, and we believe they could benefit by having a lawyer represent them, one of the most valuable services we provide is a referral to the Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic or another legal services provider.

The process at the Consumer Law Resource Center is similar. Last year, we helped more than 900 unrepresented litigants with small claims matters ranging from home repair disputes to automobile accident claims to credit card debt collection matters. Again, the customers need help on both the process—how to serve a complaint or execute on a judgment—and substantive law issues such as the statute of limitations, what property is exempt from creditors’ claims, etc. Even though the amount of money involved may seem small to some of us, for most of these customers, the stakes are very high.

Most of us are not housing lawyers or credit card attorneys. But we are adept navigators of the legal system. We know where to find the procedural and substantive knowledge to handle the cases and can offer some measure of justice to people thrown into the system without an attorney.

For me, one of the advantages of these two programs is the flexible time commitment. Although I now live abroad for part of each year, I can still engage with the local community and help within my time constraints. Other pro bono opportunities are available for attorneys who are able to undertake more sustained responsibilities in litigation or transactional matters. Developed by the Access to Justice Commission and the Pro Bono Program, the Senior Attorneys Initiative for Legal Services aims to help attorneys nearing the end of their careers find ways to continue making a substantial impact on the community.

Retirement does not have to mean an end to a legal career. At any stage of our careers, pro bono work can bring new challenges to stretch and go outside our comfort zones. Whether a senior attorney or associate, a litigator or transactional lawyer, we can each help ensure access to justice for our city’s poorest residents. The personal rewards can be great, and the community needs our help.

Mary G. Clark retired from partnership at Williams & Connolly in 2007 and was of counsel at the firm until 2010. She spent 27 years at the firm, focusing on civil defense litigation. She is now a regular volunteer at the Landlord Tenant and Consumer Law Resource Centers at D.C. Superior Court. For more information on volunteering with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program, visit the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program.