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Pro Bono Center’s Advice & Referral Clinic Returns to Anacostia

April 14, 2023

By John Funk

Paul Mentor
Torts mentor Paul Cornini advises volunteer attorney Natalie Harrison

After nearly three years of remote operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Saturday Advice & Referral Clinic returned to in-person services.

The Advice & Referral clinic, a mainstay of the Pro Bono Center’s legal programs serving District residents living on low incomes for twenty-five years, has been hosted by Bread for the City since its inception.  The clinic reopened for in-person services in February at Bread for the City’s brand-new Michelle Obama Center, located in the heart of the historic Anacostia Washington D.C. neighborhood.

The clinic, directed by Managing Attorney Anitra Ash-Shakoor, provides walk-in legal advice to Washingtonians who have civil law questions but cannot afford a lawyer. February’s clinic drew in 38 volunteers – lawyers and paralegals alike – who assisted 25 clients, many of whom came with multiple legal issues. Just one month later, 39 residents arrived for legal assistance, signaling a quick return to pre-pandemic numbers. Prior to the shutdown, 1,500 residents annually sought help from the clinic’s two locations in Anacostia and Shaw.

Judge Steven Wellner of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, a participant in the clinic since its earliest days, attended the March clinic to express the Court’s appreciation, provide encouragement and stress the importance of pro bono work to the gathered volunteer attorneys.Pro Bono Center Executive Director Kelli Neptune and Superior Court Judge Steven Wellner
Pro Bono Center Executive Director Kelli Neptune and
Superior Court Judge Steven Wellner

“The clinics are a fantastic opportunity for any lawyer to make a real contribution to the public good,” Wellner said. “It was a perfect fit for me when I was a new lawyer with an interest in pro bono service, but no idea where to start. At the recent clinic I met new lawyers and law firm partners, government lawyers, and solo practitioners. There’s room for everyone, and I’d encourage any Bar member to participate.”

Veterans and first-time volunteers alike lined up to provide legal advice for their neighbors in need. Rob Abrams, an associate in Sidley Austin LLP’s environmental law practice group, was quickly hooked after participating in the February clinic.

“It was the first time I volunteered at the Advice & Referral clinic, but definitely not the last,” Abrams said.

Abrams said his favorite aspect of the clinic was the opportunity to meet with clients who needed his legal expertise but lacked the resources to access an attorney. He also enjoyed advising in legal matters outside his typical practice area. The clinic’s mentor program pairs seasoned attorneys with specific subject matter expertise to advise volunteer lawyers counseling outside their normal practice area.

“I have always enjoyed volunteering with the Advice & Referral clinic,” said torts mentor Paul Cornoni of Regan Zambri Long PLLC. “I have been doing it for a decade or so, and it amazes me how much benefit the clinic brings to the citizens of the District of Columbia.”

In February and March, employment law and probate matters were the two most popular legal issues sought by clients.

Volunteer Attorney Owen Agho
Volunteer Attorney Owen Agho

Another first-timer, volunteer attorney Owen Agho, practices technology and data privacy law at Honigman LLP.

“My experience at the Advice & Referral Clinic was extremely gratifying and I am looking forward to participating again,” Agho said. “My law firm is passionate about its attorneys investing their time, resources, and expertise in the communities in which we live and work, so the firm has been supportive of my participation in clinic.”

Agho spent much of his time working with a client who came to the clinic with several legal issues.

“At the end of our time together, we were able to prioritize her issues list and get her referred to services that would be able to help her moving forward,” he said. “The opportunity to interface with the community and provide free general legal advice to those who may otherwise not have access to an attorney is an invaluable resource, and I highly recommend that other attorneys in the area participate in the program.”

It’s not just private practice attorneys who spend an occasional Saturday helping people in need. According to Laura Klein, Pro Bono Program Manager at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice, legal professionals from the federal government readily volunteer for pro bono work on their own time and in their personal capacity. 

Paralegals
Volunteer paralegals Kelly Edwards, Will Andriola,
John Sposito, Darrell Black, and Dourisse Ndongmo

“Federal government attorneys and paralegals have staffed the Advice & Referral Clinic in large numbers for over 20 years,” Klein said. “We are excited that the clinic is in person again. The people working at the clinic are enthusiastic and inspiring, and the service they are providing is absolutely crucial.  It is a truly satisfying experience to be a part of this community effort.”

And the clients – who often arrive low on hope with very few options – leave with a newfound sense of direction and are appreciative of the help of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. One native Washingtonian, who found the clinic after unsuccessfully seeking help from several other District agencies, expressed his gratitude.

“There are a lot of people like me who don’t know the first thing about how to start trying to fix a legal problem,” the client said. “I’m just grateful I had a place to come to come to. I hope you guys never go away.”

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