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Legal Community Launches New Pro Bono Initiative to Address Pandemic-Driven Legal Crisis

March 25, 2021

By Susannah Buell

On March 25, a coalition of District legal services providers, law firms, and law schools led by the D.C. Access to Justice Commission launched D.C. Represents, a campaign to mobilize pro bono legal help for D.C. residents hardest hit by the pandemic. 

D.C. Represents is challenging law firms, corporations, organizations, and others to provide pro bono civil legal services in matters involving eviction, domestic violence, debt, children and families, wills and probate, and access to unemployment insurance and public benefits. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, the largest provider of pro bono legal services in the District, has pledged to support the effort.

Pro Bono HeartBefore the pandemic, one in six District residents lived in poverty, a hardship that has been exacerbated by the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. “When faced with legal issues threatening their stability, the vast majority of D.C. residents — 75% to 97% — have appeared in court without a lawyer,” said James J. Sandman, vice chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission. 

As of its launch date, D.C. Represents has received the commitment of 33 participating organizations to help meet the increased civil legal needs in the District through several ways, including creating signature projects and new initiatives, designing District-focused pro bono teams, starting an attorney pro bono hours challenge, and taking on more individual cases. The initiative also encourages participating organizations to reach out to community members to discuss their challenges, sponsor pro bono training, and inspire others by promoting pro bono success stories.

“Health needs are naturally front and center during a public health emergency, but this pandemic and our response to it have led to mushrooming legal needs, too,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. “We know that when people are represented by counsel, they are much more likely to succeed. The important work of D.C. Represents will play a tremendous role in our city’s recovery.”

Low-income individuals experience higher rates of civil legal problems, and it is extremely difficult for them to recover from the negative effects of losing housing, health insurance, or employment, D.C. Represents said in a press statement. In addition, this population often faces higher obstacles when navigating the legal system.

D.C. Access to Justice Commission Chair Peter Edelman said pro bono legal help is “absolutely essential” to ensure these individuals have access to legal help. “The COVID-19 crisis has worsened a civil justice crisis that our District neighbors faced even before the pandemic,” Edelman said.

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said, “D.C. Represents is a laudable effort and a good start towards ensuring that the growing number of District residents who cannot afford representation can access legal services from the city’s best firms and lawyers.” Racine called on the coalition to “make tangible commitments, including exceeding their prior year’s total of pro bono hours logged on behalf of D.C. residents, and consider incentivizing partners, associates, paralegals, and other[s] to ramp up this work by counting pro bono work toward billable hour requirements.”

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center will be working with its pro bono volunteers to ensure “legal help is there for those who need it,” said Executive Director Rebecca K. Troth. “The Pro Bono Center is proud to be part of this effort . . . to meet the tremendous challenges the pandemic has posed and will continue to pose even as the public health emergency ends.”

D.C. Represents is also supported by the D.C. Courts. D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby said pro bono support by the legal community is needed now more than ever. “Even here in our nation’s capital, where we have one of the largest concentrations of lawyers and a judiciary devoted to access to justice, there are people living in our community who do not have the means to afford an attorney, nor access to pro bono assistance,” Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby said.

D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring said the campaign will help ensure that unrepresented litigants in the community “have someone standing by them who has legal knowledge, skill, and ability” to assist them in court.

To learn more about D.C. Represents and to sign on to the campaign, visit dcaccesstojustice.org/dcrepresents.

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