By Shea Hazel
“A great experiment takes great determination, the will to do the work, and then the wisdom to keep refining, keep tinkering, keep perfecting. The same determination is being realized in America today.” – Vice President Kamala Harris
On Thursday, January 28, 2021, Washington Council of Lawyers reflected upon pro bono legal services and what changes, if any, have transpired after the historical 46th Presidential inauguration. The central question of this discussion was what the new administration might mean in providing pro bono legal services in the District.
Moderator Paul Lee, Pro Bono Counsel at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, set the tone sharing Vice President Harris’ words on the will to work, the need to be determined, and the ability to keep refining, tinkering, and perfecting. Turning to the District, he noted, “Our clients for years and years have needed volunteers prior to the pandemic, prior to Trump…this moment provides an opportunity to maybe cast these issues into full light.”
Our distinguished panelists were hopeful and optimistic as they shared opportunities for attorneys to make an immediate impact in support of the lives of District residents. They provided insights into areas of pro bono legal aid where the needs have most greatly been affected by the global health pandemic of Covid-19: poverty law, custody disputes, and evictions. And, they reminded us of just how valuable our law degrees can be when we take on pro bono cases and work together to help those in need.
Join Active Campaigns
Nancy Drane, Executive Director of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, reflected that while she is filled with hope every day, it’s imperative to understand the hill that we still have to climb. She shared some sobering statistics, including 43.1% of Black tenants and 63.8% of Latinx tenants have little or no confidence they can pay their rent. As part of the response to these legal needs, the Access to Justice Commission recently launched the D.C. Represents Campaign.
The campaign challenges law firms, corporate offices, government attorneys, law firms, and others to commit to doing something in response to COVID-19. The reporting requirements are not burdensome and can be tangentially achieved while working pro bono efforts and tying them to this forward-leading, action-inspiring campaign. You are encouraged to check out D.C. Represents to familiarize yourself with the challenges the legal community faces to confront the ever-present needs in providing civil justice for our neighbors. “The rate of people needing civil legal aid or help won’t be less this year, it will be greater,” implored Nancy.
Help Families and Small Businesses
Rebecca Troth, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Executive Director, highlighted the varied custody issues resulting from homeschooling, communication challenges, domestic violence, and medical conditions during a global pandemic. Becky shared that the Pro Bono Center is struggling to find firms who will take family law cases. They need lawyers to step up and help D.C. families navigate through these challenging moments. She continued, “to help us prepare to help, and for us to know what resources we have available, firms can still participate in our representation clinic. We have committed volunteers, who are ready to step up and take cases as they arise.”
Small businesses continue to struggle. Becky reflected there is a great need for lawyers who are willing to represent these small businesses. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Small Business Legal Assistance Program is launching a Commercial Tenant Task Force that will provide pro bono representation to eligible DC small businesses in certain lease negotiations, rental abatement, and eviction actions. Interested attorneys can email Christine Kulumani at email@example.com.
Jump In, Engage, and Collaborate
Daniel Cantor, Partner & Pro Bono Committee Chair at Arnold & Porter, highlighted Arnold & Porter’s COVID-19 Unemployment Project, an incredible firm-wide effort to step up and help the community. What really made this project successful was the collaboration thoughtfully orchestrated across the various pro bono and civil aid providers in the District. This program is a best practice and a glimpse of the kind of good news story that inspires us through even the most challenging of times.
Leverage Available Laws
Laurie Ball Cooper, Ayuda Legal Director, brought to light the need to proactively leverage available laws in support of clients, especially immigrants. Within the first week of the new administration, notable opportunities presented themselves in immigration relief that have already benefitted Ayuda’s clients. People who risked fear of deportation were not applying for relief, because denial would translate into direct deportation. “For four years we have been going from crisis to crisis to crisis in immigration law. The [current] opportunities are extremely unlikely to last forever… We are hoping this will encourage pro bono volunteers to step up and help immigrants… and there are a spectrum of needs,” Laurie said. Ayuda is one of the many legal service organizations in DC that offer volunteer lawyers mentorship on the substantive law and general guidance on how to best serve clients who are human beings seeking assistance in challenging times.
- DC Represents
- Raising the Bar
- Probono.net/dc and Pro Bono Project Page
- D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Trainings
- D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Clinics
- Ayuda’s Pro Bono Program
- ProBono Projects
- Pro Bono Publico Blog Post
- Fair Budget Coalition
- Council Office on Racial Equity Open Data Sets
As the public-interest bar association for the District of Columbia, Washington Council of Lawyers offers many opportunities to connect and learn with people across all sectors of the legal profession. Collaboration and education are key. Check out our upcoming events or let us know if you would like to join one of our committees.
Washington Council of Lawyers extends a special thank you to those jumping in during a global pandemic and finding time to provide critical pro bono services under every administration.
Shea Hazel is a law student at UMass Law and a member of Washington Council of Lawyers Advocacy Committee.