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Washington Lawyer

One Cure for All of Those Lawyer Jokes

From Washington Lawyer, March 2014

By Reid D. Henderson

We are all familiar with lawyer jokes: What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. With all the complaints about “frivolous” litigation, ambulance chasing, and greed in the profession, it can be easy to forget that lawyers serve a vital function in society. This is especially true in the District of Columbia where the oft-cited statistic is that one out of every 10 residents is a lawyer. My experience volunteering with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Consumer Law Resource Center (CLRC) for the past several years has provided a welcome reminder of our profession’s real value to individuals and the community.

The CLRC provides free legal information and assistance to individuals on consumer law matters or small claims cases at the D.C. Superior Court. On a typical morning, volunteers will see 15 to 20 customers about a wide range of legal issues, including debt collection cases, disputes with home improvement contractors, security deposit refunds, credit reporting, identity theft, and problems with car repairs or used cars. The customers at the CLRC have varying levels of sophistication, but they all have one thing in common: They have a legal problem and they need our help.

For lawyers who’ve spent years studying the legal system and training as professional problem solvers, the legal system makes sense. For our customers, being involved in the judicial process is often a stressful, intimidating, and confusing experience. We listen to their stories, explain their rights, talk to them about their options, and guide them through the legal process so they can vindicate those rights. Volunteers explain the available options and draft pleadings, motions, and other documents.

In many cases, the difference between a judgment and a dismissal is just a brief talk with a lawyer. For example, a woman sued for her deceased husband’s credit card debt came to us after spending months trying to negotiate a resolution with the credit card company. We were able to explain that she was not responsible for her husband’s credit card debt and that the statute of limitations had expired long before the lawsuit was filed. A short time later, the plaintiff dismissed the case with prejudice.

It is often the simple things that have the biggest impact on a customer’s life. An elderly woman came to the CLRC when she was sued by her condominium association for unpaid condo fees. The substantial equity in the property was her life savings, but she could not afford to pay the fees. She was terrified that the association would imminently take the property from her and she would lose all of the equity. Her relief was palpable after I explained the litigation process, the defenses she could raise, and that, no matter what happened, she had a right to all of the excess proceeds after satisfying an eventual judgment. As an aside, I mentioned that she could avoid the litigation by selling the condo and paying the association any amounts it was owed. I was shocked by her smile and excitement at this news. She had wanted to sell the condo and move in with a relative, but thought that she couldn’t because of the lawsuit. A few weeks later I received an effusive thank you card that still hangs on the wall in my office.

A lot of our work is simply translation—decrypting legalese into understandable English. We explain the meaning of an order or a motion, the significance of facts to legal arguments. We also help customers explain their claims or arguments to the court in pleadings and motions. Many customers only need someone to explain the litigation process—complaints, answers, and scheduling orders.

If your law firm, voluntary bar association, or D.C. Bar section is considering expanding your involvement in pro bono work, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program has a range of opportunities from which to choose. You can provide brief information and services at one of its four resource centers (landlord and tenant, probate, tax sale, and consumer law) at the D.C. Superior Court; brief advice at a Saturday morning walk-in clinic; or full representation in a family, public benefits, consumer, bankruptcy, or personal injury defense matter. No matter what area of law you practice, you will be supported by the Pro Bono Program’s staff attorney experts and subject area mentors to help you achieve success for your customers or clients.

Pro bono service is fun, rewarding, and a great investment in professional development. Every time I volunteer, I learn something new about D.C. law and the rules of civil procedure. I have learned about new areas of law and put my knowledge of civil procedure into constant practice. Each customer I help provides an opportunity for me to improve my skills as an interviewer, as a communicator, and as a writer. Best of all, there is no homework.

I doubt that punch lines questioning the need for lawyers will end any time soon. I may even laugh myself once in a while. However, whenever I need a lift about our chosen profession, I think about the many people I have helped, especially my pro bono clients. Almost none of them could afford to pay a penny to a lawyer, but for each one of them, the information and services I provided helped to improve their lives. And that’s no joke.

Reid Henderson is the principal attorney at RDH Law, P.C. specializing in consumer litigation and small business counseling. In 2012 he was recognized by the D.C. Bar as Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year for his service as a volunteer mentor at the Consumer Law Resource Center.