Washington Lawyer

Bar Business: Pro Bono Program Report

From Washington Lawyer, April 2011

By Maureen Thornton Syracuse

newspaperResponding to the Community

The work of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program over the past year has been driven by the unrelenting effects of the recession on the District of Columbia and our client community. The increased demand for our services began more than two years ago with the economic downturn, and it has continued unabated. We have focused on building our capacity as much as possible with our limited staff and financial resources, strengthening our collaborations with legal services providers, using technology to expand our reach, and adapting our programs to respond to changing client needs. Additionally, we have invested in new initiatives to expand the pool of pro bono resources and to develop a blueprint for increasing access to justice in a critical area of family law.

For 16 years, the Advocacy & Justice Clinic has been providing full representation in housing, family law, public benefits, personal injury defense, and consumer law cases. This unique partnership includes legal services providers that refer cases they are unable to handle, subject matter experts who mentor volunteers, and law firms and federal government agencies that commit to staff clinics and accept a minimum number of cases each year. This past year, the clinic placed 342 new cases with pro bono attorneys, a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

For the second consecutive year, we had more than 200 public benefits referrals, primarily through our strong partnerships with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the Whitman-Walker Clinic. This also reflects an increase in filings for Social Security disability benefits that comes with a recession, and an historic backlog in disability appeals.

To expand the Advocacy & Justice Clinic, we recruited additional law firms, and federal government attorneys took a record number of cases—50—more than any law firm. We made a special effort to recruit firms and volunteers to handle disability cases, conducting quarterly training sessions and developing a training video available online.

In the morning of the second Saturday of each month, our Advice & Referral Clinic is hosted by Bread for the City at its Shaw and Anacostia locations. Our attorney volunteers meet with anyone who walks in, providing as much information and assistance as possible on-site. Volunteers come from law firms, government agencies, voluntary bar associations, law schools, and D.C. Bar sections.

Volunteers assisted 1,145 individuals—the third consecutive year the number of clients seeking assistance exceeded 1,000. More clients were seeking assistance with debt collection, foreclosure, and bankruptcy.

Our Spanish Language Clinic provides quarterly walk-in legal assistance in the Columbia Heights neighborhood and is staffed exclusively by Spanish-speaking attorneys, mentors, and legal staff volunteers. Last year we served 73 people at this clinic. Increasingly, this clinic is visited by speakers of languages other than English and Spanish, particularly Amharic (an official language of Ethiopia) and, more recently, French. The overwhelming majority of clients seek assistance with immigration issues, often in combination with other problems. We plan to transition this clinic to an Immigration Clinic and increase our ability to serve clients with a wider range of language needs.

Our Community Economic Development (CED) Project, which engages business and transactional lawyers to represent community-based nonprofits and disadvantaged small businesses, arranged counsel for 58 nonprofit organizations, a record number. The CED Project also significantly increased the training and legal information it offered to potential client organizations. We trained 789 participants at 16 training sessions, many of them conducted as Webinars.

The CED Project also piloted a new governance assessment project to help nonprofits identify potential problems. Working with a team from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, the CED Project developed a due diligence checklist that pro bono lawyers use to help nonprofits determine whether they are meeting the regulatory requirements and best practices applicable to District nonprofit organizations.

The CED Project also expanded its services to small businesses last year, conducting 10 brief advice clinics, including one targeted to Spanish-speaking business owners. The clinics assisted 169 small business owners. Three low-income small businesses were matched with pro bono counsel, including a small restaurant and a local dry cleaner that needed help negotiating a new commercial lease.

There is no better place to reach clients than at the courthouse, where we now operate four resource centers. 

Each weekday, unrepresented tenants and landlords come to our Landlord Tenant Resource Center, just down the hall from the courtroom, to speak with attorney volunteers to receive help understanding court proceedings; information on how to obtain continuances and retain counsel; tips on how to present cases in court; assistance in preparing pro se pleadings; and referrals to legal, financial, and social services resources.

The Landlord Tenant Resource Center assisted a record 5,633 customers last year, a 15 percent increase over the previous year.

At the Probate Resource Center, experienced volunteer probate attorneys assisted low-income residents with questions about estate administration, and the Tax Sale Resource Center helped homeowners and other interested parties to preserve their interests in real property that has been sold for unpaid taxes.

The Consumer Law Resource Center is our newest initiative, launched in 2008 with Williams & Connolly LLP. Every Wednesday, attorney volunteers and legal assistants provide pro se assistance in a wide range of consumer-related matters such as debt collections, home improvement contractor cases, and predatory lending matters. By June 30, 2010, the center had served 681 people. We are working to expand the Consumer Law Resource Center, with the ultimate goal of being open every day the court is in session.

Technology is a very important tool for us as we strive to increase our efficiency and effectiveness. Our Legal Information Help Line, an automated telephone service that provides the public with legal and referral information 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is available in seven languages.

Working with local legal services providers, we coordinate two Web sites—www.probono.net/dc (to support pro bono lawyers) and www.LawHelp.org/dc (to inform the public). We have launched an ambitious project to create interactive online interviews to assist unrepresented litigants in completing court-approved pro se pleadings. An application to proceed in forma pauperis, which can be used in multiple Superior Court divisions, and five Landlord–Tenant pleadings already are in use. Shortly, we also will launch family law pleadings.

As we strive to meet the pressing needs of today, we also try to expand the pro bono resources available and develop strategies for improving access to justice.

We have joined with the D.C. Access to Justice Commission to cosponsor the Senior Attorneys Initiative for Legal Services (SAILS) Project, which is working with 11 founding law firms to institutionalize programs to engage their senior lawyers in significant pro bono undertakings. We hope to develop models and best practices that can be exported to other firms and communities.

The Family Law Task Force was launched in July 2009 to develop recommendations to expand access to justice in the Domestic Relations and Paternity and Support branches of the family court. The task force has held listening sessions with various stakeholder groups and conducted extensive surveys of practitioners, including legal services and pro bono lawyers, and interviewed unrepresented litigants. The task force will be analyzing the data and developing recommendations in 2011. Stay tuned.

These are just some highlights of the past year. We encourage you to visit our Web site at www.dcbar.org/probono to learn about all of our programs and how you can get involved and support our work.

Voluntary contributions—not D.C. Bar dues—are used to fund all these services. Many Bar members do not realize that their dues do not support the Pro Bono Program. We are deeply grateful to the many lawyers, law firms, D.C. Bar sections, voluntary bar associations, foundations, and corporations whose financial contributions are essential to sustaining our vital programs. These contributions enable us to use our small staff to leverage thousands of hours of pro bono legal services every year.

We extend our thanks to all our partners and major donors for supporting our work and for helping to make a difference in our community.

*The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program is supported entirely by voluntary contributions.