Washington Lawyer

Every Second Saturday: Making 30 Minutes Count

From Washington Lawyer, May 2016

By Patrick Malone

Pro Bono Effect LogoEvery second Saturday of the month, they pour into the legal clinic: dozens of D.C. residents who have no lawyer but who face big legal consequences. Someone wants a big money judgment against them, or to take custody of their children, or kick them out of their home. Usually their adversaries in court have a lawyer. Our job, as volunteers at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center's Advice & Referral Clinic, is to make it a fair fight. And we do, much of the time.

Despite being a local bar whose membership long ago swelled past the 100,000 mark, there have never been enough lawyers to guarantee that everyone has one with them when they need to go to court. But here in the District of Columbia, we have the next best thing that works surprisingly well: a monthly volunteer clinic where lawyers with expertise in a broad range of real-people legal problems can dispense effective advice that empowers our clients to represent themselves with a fair shot at whatever justice their merits deserve.

I have been attending the Pro Bono Center's Advice & Referral Clinic at Bread for the City on 7th Street NW since the Pro Bono Center started it in 1997. You'll find me there, not every second Saturday, but most of them.

Because I'm the clinic's torts specialist, I see anyone who has suffered some physical or emotional injury, or loss of property, or who stands accused of inflicting harm on someone else. I also work with clients who have consumer claims or who find themselves in court on just about any other noncriminal issue.

Lots of friends who are used to legal issues that require tens or hundreds of hours to figure out are skeptical when I tell them how 30 minutes can untie many knotty legal problems. Then I tell them some stories:

  • An elderly immigrant couple has just been sued for what they thought was a fender-bender accident 2 years, 11 months, and 29 days ago, and now they are panicked because they no longer have the auto insurance policy that they had when the collision occurred. They are astonished and happy when I tell them their old insurer still owes them coverage, plus a free lawyer, as long as the company was notified about the accident when it happened. I draft a letter for them to mail to the insurer demanding coverage and representation.
  • A bicyclist was knocked down by a turning car on his morning commute to his job, a few months before he turns up at our clinic. He is on the road to a full recovery from his cuts and bruises, so his case wouldn't attract a contingency fee lawyer. But he wants something for what he underwent. So I help him draft a claim letter to the driver's insurer, and then, over subsequent Saturday sessions, coach him through the negotiation process, including how to keep any funds the auto insurer eventually pays.
  • A young couple's possessions in their former landlord's storage unit disappeared when the building owner leaves the access unsecured. I send them to small claims court with a draft complaint and tips on how to document their losses and present them to the court.

None of these cases might look terribly consequential to lawyers who charge in the high hundreds or low four figures for an hour of their time. But to clients who live on minimum-wage jobs or government disability benefits, a loss of $10,000 can be catastrophic, and a check in a like amount seems heaven-sent.

A big part of our job is extricating low-income clients from debt owed to credit cards, utilities, or hospitals. They bring in piles of envelopes with their names in glassine windows, and a quick review shows a downward financial spiral that started with a serious illness, loss of job, or death of a bread-winning family member.

These clients always stress that they want to pay what they owe, but just can't. A few simple questions often sort out the recommended course of action. Do they have a job with wages that could be garnished? Do they own a home or other significant property that could be seized by a judgment creditor? If the answers are no, as they usually are, we pull out our standard, "I'm collection proof so leave me alone" letter, customize it quickly for their creditors and their individual stories, and send them home with a stack of letters to mail that should at least quiet the monthly dunning.

Almost every month, I see a client whose real problem is not legal but likely instead a mental health issue, yet who wants to go to court. In my experience, their stories can seem tragically comical, but we gently steer them toward the right path, which usually does not involve the court system.

A young man wanted our help in drafting a lawsuit to demand that his doctor perform an imaging scan of his head, where he was convinced a dentist had implanted a listening device. Other volunteers at the clinic, who weren't familiar with schizophrenia, had earnestly tried to explain to him how legal precedent would make it hard to win. I tried a different approach. What if the scan was done and it showed nothing, I asked him. Would he conclude that the radiologists were in on the plot to spy on him? Of course, he said, absolutely. Well then, I said, maybe a head scan isn't the answer. Then I pointed out that if he brought a lawsuit like that, someone would say he was mentally ill, and so perhaps his better strategy would be first to get a doctor to examine him and if the doctor said he was mentally fit, he could come back to our clinic and we would have something to work with.

Fortunately, in addition to Pro Bono Center staff and lawyer volunteers, there is a social worker on-site at the Shaw location to assist clients with problems that are best addressed by social services agencies. In the case of this customer, we sent him home with a list of mental health agencies with which to make an appointment, should he desire.

Many of our clients have real legal problems that are too involved or too high-stakes for a single 30-minute fix. We try to customize an answer that ensures we're not throwing them into shark-infested waters. One woman showed me photos of how her basement had developed a serious groundwater leak after a contractor had worked on a retaining wall just outside the basement. I took her case back to my office, wrote a series of letters to the builder that he never responded to, then persuaded some colleagues at another firm to sue the builder on her behalf without fee.

Homeowner issues are a constant source of work for our clinic. Some fact patterns come up again and again. I see so many disappearing contractor cases that the first words out of my mouth are often, "Please tell me you didn't pay the entire contract up front." We see fewer of those now, but still plenty with a 50 percent down payment and a contractor who never answers the phone.

Another frequent homeowner issue: An elderly widow has died. The home is modest but thanks to years of frugal living, the mortgage is paid off. A son, who lived with her for years, helped care for her and the house. Or maybe he did a terrible job. That's what the other siblings say, and they are now at the legal clinic asking how they can kick him out and get the house sold. Did their mom leave a will? Has anyone been appointed as the personal representative of the estate? No, and no. I explain that they're in for a battle, but since they have a valuable financial stake, they should be able to attract a lawyer to represent them for a fee to be paid out of the eventual proceeds. I coach them in how to find a trust and estates lawyer and what to expect to pay.

I have just enough experience with probate, trusts and estates to assist clients with the basics at the Advice & Referral Clinic. However, Pro Bono Center attorneys can guide any volunteer to the information they need to help most clients understand their problem and get them to the next step toward solving it. In addition, subject matter expert mentors are almost always available for other volunteers to consult with in probate, employment, family, housing, and other areas commonly encountered at the clinic, such as I am for personal injury matters. The Pro Bono Center ensures that volunteers have the resources they need to be successful in this brief advice and referral setting.

What keeps me coming back? I like hearing people's stories and helping them sort through and solve a problem that has kept them up at night. I like their smiles when they leave, and I like reading their survey forms when they say nice things about being treated with respect and understanding. I even don't mind when I have to deliver bad news, like it's too late to sue, or I think their position is wrong, because most people appreciate straight talk. It's the human connection that counts, the realization that all of us are on a journey, and when we can give a hand to a stranger who has stumbled, it feels good.

Patrick Malone represents plaintiffs in complex personal injury and consumer litigation. He is principal of Patrick Malone & Associates P.C.