Washington Lawyer

An Interview With Kirra L. Jarratt: Executive Director of the D.C. Bar Foundation

From Washington Lawyer, October 2014

By Kathryn Alfisi

Kirra Jarratt, photo by Patrice GilbertFor almost 40 years the D.C. Bar Foundation has supported access to justice efforts in the District of Columbia through its grants to nonprofit organizations and programs that meet the civil legal needs of the District’s low-income community, as well as through training and technical assistance.

In January, Katherine L. “Katia” Garrett stepped down as the Bar Foundation’s executive director after serving in the position since 2005. Her successor is Kirra L. Jarratt, formerly a legislative counsel in the Governmental Affairs Office of the American Bar Association.

Jarratt also served as general counsel for the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and as assistant general counsel at the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. In addition, she served as counsel on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and as legislative director for Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. She founded the law firm of Jarratt & Jarratt, PLLC, where she litigated child welfare and family law cases. Jarratt is a graduate of Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges and the University of Michigan Law School.

Washington Lawyer recently sat down with Jarratt to talk about the leadership transition at the Bar Foundation, as well as the foundation’s work, challenges, and plans.

Tell me a little about your background. What did you do before joining the Bar Foundation?
Immediately before coming to the Bar Foundation, I was in the Governmental Affairs Office of the American Bar Association for four-and-a-half years, where I lobbied on issues such as domestic violence, elder law, and the environment. I also spent a great deal of time working on reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Did the leadership transition at the Bar Foundation go smoothly?
Yes, and the Bar Foundation’s board and staff have been a huge part of that. I came in knowing some things, but obviously not everything I needed to know. The staff has really helped with the transition and helped me to understand what the priorities have been and what the resources are within the office. The board has been amazing, and in particular Board Chair Marc Fleischaker. I’ve really been fortunate that the board has been so supportive. The board has told me, ‘We’ve chosen you as executive director for a reason, we know you will do well,’ so it’s great to have that vote of confidence.

In addition to the Bar Foundation staff, I knew D.C. Bar Chief Executive Officer Katherine Mazzaferri, and I’ve gotten to know D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program Executive Director Monika Varma. The leadership at the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, Peter Edelman and Jess Rosenbaum, has been great as well. Everyone has been super warm and helpful.

I think the learning curve has been not so much ‘what does the Bar Foundation do?’ but ‘why do we do what we do?’ I knew that the foundation awarded grants, I knew that the foundation had a training and technical assistance program, but getting into the nitty-gritty of why we do what we do has been more of the learning curve.

In your new role, what have been some of the challenges?
One challenge has been getting the right team in place. Another challenge has been accepting that I can’t do it all and it’s not going to happen overnight. One of the board members said to me, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ and that really resonated with me.

In a previous Washington Lawyer interview, your predecessor, Katia Garrett, discussed how it was a struggle telling the Bar Foundation’s story so that people understand what it does. Is that an ongoing problem?
The ongoing problem is people knowing who we are—knowing how we’re different from the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program or knowing that we don’t provide direct legal services. When I go to events, I meet a lot of attorneys who ask, ‘what’s the Bar Foundation?’ or people who have given to the Pro Bono Program and think they already gave money to the Bar Foundation. It’s difficult for people to understand the difference among the Access to Justice Commission’s Raising the Bar campaign, the Bar Foundation’s Call to Action, and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s initiatives. So the education efforts will continue.

How many organizations did the Bar Foundation fund this year?
We funded 20 projects through the Access to Justice public program and 20 through the D.C. Legal Services Grants program, which is privately funded. However, there is some overlap between the two.

What does the Bar Foundation take into consideration when deciding which organizations will receive grant funding?
Our funding process explains why, to the extent that you want to support the legal services network in the District, giving to the Bar Foundation is a great way to do it. The application itself is pretty extensive. It’s not a cursory review at all to determine who will receive a grant. There’s a face-to-face visit, a financial assessment, a review of past performance on other grants, and we have conversations with other funders. During the process we’re looking at the extent to which grantees collaborate with other grantees and the population they’re serving. We want to make sure we’re not funding 10 projects serving the same needs. And the Bar Foundation’s board reviews all staff recommendations. One of the things that impressed me when I first came here was how extensive this process is and how much effort goes into it.

What’s an example of a new project you recently funded?
The DC Employment Justice Center has a new project that expands access to low-income workers in Wards 5 and 7. Another new grantee is the Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities’ Jenny Hatch Justice Project, where the focus is on enabling people to make their own decisions and have some measure of control over their lives, and not just having someone come in and put a guardianship or conservatorship in place.

Does the Bar Foundation monitor the funded organizations?
Yes. There’s programmatic and financial monitoring that occurs during the grant year. Each grantee is assigned a monitoring level in its grant agreement and must submit grant and budget reports on a regular basis. We conduct financial site visits with all public grantees and programmatic site visits with grantees on the highest level of monitoring during each grant year. All other grantees are on a three-year site visit rotation. For some grantees, we conduct a peer review. We did that with Ayuda’s Community Legal Interpreter Bank this year. We flew in experts from around the country to do an evaluation of that particular program. That’s the most extensive review that we do.

Could you explain the two grant programs?
There are basically two pots of money, and the purpose for which we award the grants is different. The public money comes from the District of Columbia and funds the Access to Justice Initiative, which includes the Access to Justice Grants program and the D.C. Poverty Lawyer Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). These grants, which are awarded in March, are project-based. The private grants, which are awarded in June, primarily fund general operating expenses. These are unrestricted funds that allow grantees to pay for things such as rent, case management systems, attorney salaries, and just keeping the lights on.

The public grant program awards substantially more money; last year it awarded $3.4 million. Through the private grant program, we awarded $600,000, which was funded by our Call to Action campaign, Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) revenue, and special events such as Go Formal for Justice.

When Washington Lawyer last talked to the Bar Foundation, your organization was still feeling the effects of the recession, with IOLTA revenue taking a big hit. Has there been any improvement?
We’re hearing that interest rates are going to go up, but we’re still nowhere near the levels we were at before. When IOLTA was at its height, the revenue was more than $2 million and now it’s less than half a million.

One area of focus that we have this year is to get more banks to be part of the Prime Partner Program. To be in the IOLTA program, a bank has to offer what we call a comparable rate, but some banks choose to go above and beyond by paying a 1 percent interest rate, and the interest generated on those accounts supports the private grant program. So, one of our goals is to bring in more banks to the Prime Partner Program, particularly some of the larger banks that are already in the IOLTA program.

What else is being done to combat lower revenue?
First, we’re trying to increase revenue; the Prime Partner Program is a part of this effort. We want to make sure that banks understand the impact of the funds as well as their opportunity to get community reinvestment credits for their participation. Increasing the revenue from our special events, like Go Formal and Go Casual, and trying to think of new and creative ways to fundraise are another part of the effort. And second, we’re trying to make sure that we are operating as efficiently and effectively as possible.

There also was talk of the Bar Foundation pushing to increase corporate funding. Has that continued?
There has been a greater effort to diversify our revenue. Right now, the bulk of our revenue is coming from large law firms, and there has been an effort to reach out to the small and mid-sized firms, as well as to corporations, so that we’re receiving funding from different sources and from individuals, too.

Another piece is that we have a new communications effort this year. We’re trying to do a better job messaging what’s happening with the funds and why it’s important to be a part of this process with us. Beyond the periodic press release, there really hasn’t been the vehicle to say, ‘Here is a story about this particular LRAP participant or this grantee or this board or advisory committee member.’ There’s been nothing that tells people what we’re doing on a regular basis. So we’re going to launch a newsletter, and we’re far more engaged in social media as we tell our story through Twitter and Facebook and engage with the community. We also hope to make some improvements to our Web site.
What more could law firms be doing to help the Bar Foundation?
Some firms have been incredibly supportive in providing us with pro bono resources. Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP has provided hundreds of hours to help with the administration of the loan repayment program I mentioned earlier. This is a tremendous help because we’re a staff of five. Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP is providing us with the space for a National Institute for Trial Advocacy training program (cosponsored by the D.C. Bar’s Litigation Section and the Courts, Lawyers and the Administration of Justice Section) we’re doing in October where we will train 24 public interest attorneys in trial advocacy and litigation skills. We also would like to see more firms participate in Go Casual for Justice in October during National Pro Bono Week.

Could you tell me more about training and other services the Bar Foundation provides?
We have a three-pronged mission: fund, support, and improve the civil legal services network in the District. The training and the technical assistance that we do is part of the support piece of that mission. We sponsor skills-based training, and we also offer scholarships to public interest attorneys to take skills-based training. In the past we’ve offered full scholarships for training sponsored by the Washington Council of Lawyers on things like opening statements and expert witnesses. The peer review that I mentioned earlier is a part of the training and technical assistance as well.

We also fund two Web sites that are part of the partnership between the D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Program and the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers. One of the Web sites is Probono.net/dc and the other is Lawhelp.org/dc; one is more focused on pro bono attorneys and resources that are available to them, and the other on pro se resources.

Tell me more about LRAP.
LRAP stands for Loan Repayment Assistance Program. Just as with grants, we have a public and a private program. For both programs, you must work in the District. The public program is just for D.C. residents, while under the private program, you can live in the District of Columbia, Maryland, or Virginia. If you’re working for an eligible employer as a public interest attorney and meet all of the eligibility criteria, we will offer you a one-year forgivable interest-free loan. You can receive up to $12,000 a year to help you pay off your monthly eligible educational debt. The average salary of this year’s public interest attorney is a little more than $56,000. Their average debt is almost $142,000, and the average annual award is almost $6,800. This is the way we believe the Bar Foundation improves the legal services network.

The employers like LRAP because they’re getting people who really want to work in the public interest field, who are passionate about this work, and who can finally afford to do it. Employers have less turnover and can take advantage of the expertise that folks gain as they stay for longer periods of time. The attorneys like it because it gives them the financial resources to do what they really want to do, not because they couldn’t get a higher paying job someplace else, but because working in the public interest is what they are passionate about.

Is LRAP still greatly in need of more funding?
Yes, it definitely is still in need of funding. One of our funding priorities this year is to fully fund the private LRAP program. We would like to give those who apply to that program 100 percent of the money they need to cover their monthly student loan payments.

What are some new initiatives for the Bar Foundation?
One big initiative this year is our work with Compass to create a three-year strategic plan. It’s a two-year process, and we’re going into the second year of that. There’s also the communications effort that I mentioned. And looking down the road, we will celebrate our 40th birthday three years from now, which, to me, seems like tomorrow.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Bar Foundation?
Funding is probably the biggest challenge. I think every funder would like to give out more money. If you look at the number of organizations that are applying and the amount of money for which they are applying, we’re not able to meet that need. For the private grant program, the total requests were more than $1 million, and we were only able to give $600,000. For the public program, we had 26 proposals from 14 organizations totaling $3.9 million, and we gave out a little more than $3.4 million. We would like to give out more money, and we would like to have more resources for training and technical assistance.

The District is a very competitive fundraising environment. That’s why the communications piece is so important, so people understand what we do and why we think it’s a great investment to allow us to leverage their support with that of other donors rather than giving individually. Their donation pooled with those of others means that we can give much larger grant awards that really make a difference to a grantee.

Why is the Bar Foundation important?
We play a unique role as a vehicle for funding civil legal services. As a grant-maker, we have an in-depth and intimate view into most of the civil legal services providers in the District of Columbia. We are an active stakeholder in the community and have the benefit of having worked with all the grantees. We’ve reviewed the applications, conducted financial assessments, reviewed the reports that come in, and have gone on site visits to see what’s actually happening and how the grant dollars are being used. Your average donor doesn’t have the opportunity to do that. Often people want to support civil legal services, but they don’t know how and that’s a way in which we can help.

For more information on the D.C. Bar Foundation, visit www.dcbarfoundation.org. Reach Kathryn Alfisi at [email protected].