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Summer Forum 2013: “How Can You Represent Those People?”–The Life of a Criminal Defense Lawyer

10 June 2013   Blog | Tags: ,

by Aleta Sprague On Thursday (June 13) we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights. We’re previewing each of the panels. Our second installment looks at the practice of criminal defense. (Read our first installment on civil rights/civil liberties practice.) Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants has never been more important—or more imperiled. Yet in the media, pop culture, and even within the legal profession, criminal defense is often a poorly understood or misrepresented area of practice.To get a sense of what it’s really like to do this critical work, I spoke to Gwendolyn Washington, an attorney with the DC Public Defender Serviceand the facilitator of the Criminal Law and Death Penalty session at our upcoming Summer Forum. Challenges and Rewards One of Ms. Washington’s favorite parts of her job as a public defender is getting results every day – and knowing that she is helping people who might not otherwise get help. Many clients come from very difficult backgrounds and have struggled with substance abuse or mental health problems. As a result, public defenders have to “count victories in different ways”–a successful outcome may not always mean an acquittal, but perhaps a lighter sentence or getting a client into drug treatment. Criminal defense work can also require fixing errors made by other attorneys. This is a frequent issue for colleagues of Ms. Washington who work on death penalty cases; often, they find that a client’s previous lawyer missed something crucial that could have made a tremendous difference in their case. Finally, funding for public defenders’ offices is a persistent challenge. While the D.C. Public Defender’s office has more resources than most, public defenders often receive a modest salary to manage a massive caseload. And sequestration is making these problems worse. Essential Skills According to Ms. Washington, public defenders must have compassion and empathy. A lawyer can learn trial skills, but it’s also critical to have an innate ability to put yourself in your client’s shoes–and understand how he or she will be perceived by a judge or jury. And because D.C. courts do not require open-file discovery in criminal cases, your client will generally be your most important investigative tool. Defense attorneys can shut down their own case if they approach their clients with preconceived notions. As a result, listening and an open mind are key. Tips for Law Students Law students interested in careers in criminal law should take advantage of opportunities to get hands-on experience while still in school. Criminal justice clinics and externships can provide the chance to put classroom skills into practice under the supervision of a seasoned attorney. Ms. Washington pointed to her own experiences with DC Law Students in Court and as an extern with the Public Defender Service as formative moments in her career. A Preview of the Criminal Law/Death Penalty Session Criminal defense is one of the hardest jobs you can have as an attorney–but it can also be extremely rewarding. As a public defender, Ms. Washington noted, you quickly become used to questions about how you can “defend those people”–even from other attorneys. Yet working as a public defender entails protecting some of the most basic principles in the Bill of Rights. As a public defender, you may be all that stands between your client and a jail cell, or even death row. Participants in Ms. Washington’s session will hear from private criminal defense attorneys, public defense attorneys who work on both the trial and appellate level, and attorneys who focus on death penalty cases. The panel promises to be an engaging and inspiring look at an incredibly important but often misunderstood field of law–don’t miss it! Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.

Summer Forum 2013: The Creative Civil Rights Lawyer

09 June 2013   Blog | Tags: ,

By Aleta Sprague On Thursday we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights. We are previewing each of the panels. Our first installment looks at the field of civil rights and civil liberties.  Joy Moses will be facilitating our panel on civil rights and civil liberties practice. Currently a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, Ms. Moses was previously a children and youth staff attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. I spoke with her about her career and any advice she had to offer for new attorneys seeking to break into the field of civil rights. Challenges and Rewards For Ms. Moses, one of the most rewarding aspects of working as a civil rights lawyer is being part of the development of the progressive movement and a long tradition of advocacy. Today’s civil rights attorneys have the chance to continue the legacy of the civil rights movement–and even engage with more senior attorneys who were instrumental to the movement itself–while charting a path forward as the next generation seeks to tackle a new set of civil rights challenges. As far as the difficulties, Ms. Moses noted that civil rights attorneys have to become increasingly creative with their legal theories and choices of remedies due to a legal climate that has become less conducive to civil rights litigation. In Alexander v. Sandoval, for example, the Supreme Court held that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not create a private cause of action to enforce claims of discrimination based on a disparate impact standard. The Sandoval decision has had widespread consequences, and Ms. Moses pointed to recent school-to-prison pipeline cases as a prime example of the failings of a legal standard limited to discriminatory intent. Tips for Law Students Internships and fellowships, to the extent those opportunities are available, can be a great way to get started in the field of civil rights and civil liberties. Ms. Moses began her legal career as an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the NAACP. (Later this summer, on July 11, we’ll be hosting another event specifically targeted at students and new attorneys interested in public interest fellowships, which should be an exciting opportunity to learn about the range possibilities out there.) Ms. Moses also encourages law students and new lawyers to stay connected with the community and take advantage of opportunities to build their professional networks. In DC, organizations like WCL and the American Constitution Society hold frequent events and discussions, and can be a key way to meet other civil rights/civil liberties attorneys. Essential Skills The ability to think creatively and devise alternative ways to achieve the goals you’ve established for yourself are important skills for a civil rights attorney, according to Ms. Moses. Also essential: serious dedication to your cause, open-mindedness, and preparation for the inevitable ups and downs that accompany this area of practice. The civil rights/civil liberties panel will feature attorneys with civil rights experience in the non-profit, government, and private sector. Check it out for a chance to ask questions and hear directly from practicing lawyers about their daily work. Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.

Legal Aid Lifelines

25 February 2013   Blog

Last week, we explored the scope of the justice gap and the often devastating practical consequences of the shortage in legal representation for low-income families across the country. As promised, we’ll now shift to a more hopeful discussion–how do we fix this problem? What are some of solutions and how do we implement them? Over the past decade, a range of innovations has emerged to cope with dwindling legal-aid budgets and rising need for legal aid. From self-help resources for litigants to a pro bono requirement for new attorneys, the legal services landscape is evolving to address the fact that far too many clients aren’t accessing the help they need. Through pilot projects, some cities have even begun to ensure representation for all litigants in certain civil matters, such as foreclosures. Still, while these local and independent responses are tremendously valuable, larger structural changes likely are needed reduce the long-term gap. Without a national “civil Gideon” approach–guaranteeing counsel to all unrepresented parties–how do we increase access to justice? For more insight into this issue, I checked in with someone who has clearly thought about it at length: Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation and a panelist at Tuesday’s event. Jim, the winner of our 2012 Presidents’ Award, was gracious enough to answer my questions by email, and below I’ve summarized some of his suggestions for how policymakers and the legal community can reduce the justice gap: 1.    Increase funding Funding for LSC grantees has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, making it difficult for even the most efficient organizations to serve every client who walks in their doors. To enable these organizations to fulfill their missions, Jim wrote, we need an “increase funding from all sources for legal aid programs.” 2.    Simplify and streamline the legal system for unrepresented parties Navigating the legal system can be notoriously frustrating for unrepresented litigants who are unfamiliar with court practices and complicated rules of procedure. To make the system more user-friendly, Jim proposed that we “expand the use of simplified and standardized forms written in plain language, increase online do-it-yourself resources, and permit non-lawyers to handle routine matters that do not require a legal education.” Reducing red tape and administrative barriers would both increase access to justice and reduce courts’ dockets, yielding a more equitable and efficient judicial system. 3.    Increase pro bono participation among private attorneys Third, Jim noted that the private bar has a significant role in reducing the justice gap by pitching in and contributing pro bono hours; however, we need to do a “better job of educating the profession about the nature and extent of the need.” This is also a priority of the Washington Council of Lawyers, which volunteers regularly at the DC Bar’s advice and referral clinic and seeks to publicize other pro bono opportunities in the DC area. 4.    Provide legal aid organizations with better tools As they cope with reduced funding and smaller staffs, legal services organizations must evaluate how to operate most efficiently. As Jim described, we should “equip legal aid organizations with the business tools to manage their resources to maximum effect–to use solid data to determine what legal services yield the best outcomes for clients and to apply the same rigorous analyses to their own performance that corporations use to assess the performance of their law firms.” In effect, these tools would allow legal services organizations to do more with less, and establish best practices for securing results for the individuals and families they serve. Achieving the above goals would greatly increase access to justice and reduce disparities in our legal system. Nevertheless, Jim emphasized that there is no “single solution” to widespread underrepresentation, and that addressing the problem effectively will require a wide range of interventions and collaborations.

The Vanishing Legal Aid Lawyer

22 February 2013   Blog | Tags: ,

By Aleta Sprague Our event next week at the Center for American Progress will explore a crucial issue facing the legal community: with legal services in crisis, how can lawyers, advocates, and policymakers ensure access to justice for low-income families? A key driver of the crisis, of course, is inadequate funding. This will come as no surprise to any legal services attorneys reading this post, but the magnitude of the problem is staggering. Over the past three decades, Congress has cut the Legal Service Corporation’s budget by about seventy percent. Because LSC provides funding to about 134 legal aid programs–that employ approximately 58% of the attorneys working to provide legal aid–these organizations are scaling back. Indeed, a recent survey revealed that LSC-funded organizations anticipated laying off 13.3% of their attorneys between 2010 and 2012, along with 15.4% of their paralegals and 12.7% of their support staff. For every attorney who is let go, between two and three hundred fewer clients will be served. And with the proportion of eligible legal aid clients accessing services already below 20%, any further cuts would be devastating. At the same time, due to the recession, the need for legal services has never been greater—particularly for those facing debt and foreclosure. In 2008, LSC organizations handled 31,653 bankruptcy and debt relief cases; this number rose to 39,346 cases in 2010. Foreclosures reflect a similar trend; in New York, foreclosure cases rose by 683% between 2007 and 2011, and the cases “sit in the system” for an average of two and a half years. Legal aid lawyers assist clients in foreclosure through loan modifications, mediation, and providing representation in foreclosure proceedings. These attorneys also were among the first to identify the “robo-signing” scandal in 2010. Still, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice revealed that the vast majority of families facing foreclosure in most states are not represented by counsel. In New Jersey, for example, 92.9% of the defendants in foreclosure cases in 2010 had no attorneys on record. The practical impacts of these trends can be devastating. As the report documented, unrepresented parties in foreclosure proceedings often fail to present key pieces of evidence that could make a difference between staying in their homes or being out on the street. According to testimony from Martin Mack, the Executive Deputy Attorney General of New York, “[T]he lack of individual representation in foreclosure actions is one reason we have seen systemic abuses of the legal system by lenders and debt collectors.” These types of hurdles extend beyond foreclosure cases. Litigants trying to access or reinstate their public benefits, secure a protection order, or file a discrimination claim will also encounter a range of unfamiliar processes, rules, and language that put them at a distinct disadvantage in court. So that’s the bad news. Now what do we do about it? What’s the role of the pro bono community? Barring universal representation, how can we best serve the needs of unrepresented litigants? We’ll start answering these questions in our post on Monday, and be sure to attend the event on Tuesday as we explore some ideas, strategies, and solutions.

The Future of Access to Justice

22 February 2013   Blog | Tags:

Learn more about these issues – and how to fix them – at Tuesday’s panel on The Future of Access to Justice. #Next4Years

2012 Law Firm Award: SNR Denton

08 November 2012   Blog | Tags:

SNR Denton is a “client-focused international legal practice” with more than 60 locations worldwide. Within the United States and the many countries in which it has offices, SNR Denton is engaged in service “on behalf of individuals, communities, and organizations serving the interests of low-income and disadvantaged people.” The firm strives to provide pro bono service to all the communities in which its employees live and work and has been active in efforts ranging from law reform litigation on behalf of people with disabilities to complex transactions on behalf of social entrepreneurs and global NGOs. In 2011, more than 35 staff members of the D.C. office performed at least 50 hours of pro bono work and were named to the Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll and High Honor Roll. This year the staff at SNR Denton has handled cases from such organizations as the Pro Bono Advocacy and Justice Clinic, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project Screening Committee, and the Septima Clark Public Charter School. The firm is also a proud original signatory to the Pro Bono Institute’s Pro Bono Challenge and has been recognized for its pro bono achievements by Public Counsel in Los Angeles, Lawyers Alliance for New York, and Chicago Bar Foundation. SNR Denton has long supported the Washington Council of Lawyers.  The firm has hosted our events, supported the participation of attorney James Rubin as an active WCL Board Member, co-chair of the Special Events and Fundraising Committee, and Vice President for the past two years. SNR Denton’s support has helped us expand our programs and better promote pro bono and public interest work.  

2012 Government Pro Bono Award: Ed Eliasberg (DOJ, Antitrust Division)

08 November 2012   Blog | Tags:

Ed Eliasberg is a career government lawyer who has served as a staff attorney with the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department for over 35 years. When the Department of Justice launched its Pro Bono Program in 1996, Ed was one of the first attorneys to become involved. After obtaining a successful outcome in his first pro bono case — in which he represented a blind client against a furniture company — Ed became a leading model of a government attorney committed to pro bono work. Attorneys familiar with Eliasberg’s pro bono efforts describe him as a “true believer” in public service and as a person who “leads by example.” Ed participated the first time the Antitrust Division staffed the D.C. Bar Advice and Referral Clinic in 1998 and has both attended and recruited volunteers for nearly every clinic since then. In 2005, he became the Antitrust Division’s Pro Bono Coordinator and an active member of DOJ’s Pro Bono Committee. Ed’s colleagues have recognized his “uncommon commitment to pro bono work,” demonstrated by the numerous pro bono fairs, committee events, and brown bag lunches he has organized over the years. Another colleagues notes that he is constantly searching for “new, innovative ways to the get the word out” about pro bono opportunities. Ed has also been instrumental in expanding federal government pro bono programs outside of Washington, D.C. He helped launch the now-thriving Pro Bono Program in Chicago, Illinois, and was active in securing the full support of the Division’s leadership for the project. The success of the Chicago program has led to the creation of similar pro bono programs in New York City, San Francisco, and Denver. Asked about his recognition by the Washington Council of Lawyers, Ed said that he hopes this award will help “encourage more government lawyers to do more pro bono work.” Want to learn more? Attend next month’s Awards Ceremony – featuring a keynote speech by State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh.

2012 Presidents’ Award: Jim Sandman (Legal Services Corporation)

08 November 2012   Blog | Tags:

Jim Sandman began serving as President of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 2011 after practicing with Arnold & Porter for thirty years. Attorneys who have worked on pro bono projects alongside Sandman have described his “tireless efforts to bring together the resources of the public interest, private bar, pro bono, and government legal communities” to “improve the quality and availability of free legal services for low-income and marginalized clients.” During Jim’s ten-year tenure as Arnold & Porter’s Managing Partner, Arnold & Porter was recognized numerous times for its commitment to pro bono. The firm received the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico award and was honored a record number of times by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association for its commitment to diversity. One attorney at Arnold & Porter recalled that when “hours-based bonuses were suddenly adopted at law firms across America,” Sandman insisted that the firm count pro bono hours towards bonuses and campaigned publicly for other firms to adopt the same policy. In 2007, Jim was named General Counsel of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and he served in that position for three years. When the search began for a new President of Legal Services Corporation, attorneys familiar with Sandman knew he would be the “perfect candidate” for the job and would strive to “increase legal service resources on a national level for low-income clients throughout the country.” One of Jim’s colleagues at LSC notes that her “sense of the place has been shaped by him and the imprint he has put on LSC’s work.” Another colleague observes, “[Jim] often talks about supporting those in the legal services community and the importance of increasing the visibility of the heroes of our bar. It is high time someone told him he is the hero!” Among his many other public service contributions, Sandman was a member of the D.C. Bar’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and the Legal Workplace, a Chair of the Pro Bono Initiative Working Group, and a past President of the D.C. bar. Jim currently chairs the D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Committee and serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of the Washington Performing Arts Society.  Just this year, Jim helped us publish our 2012 Report of Legal Services Funding, which highlights the impact that cuts in funding for legal services have on the ability of programs to serve the poor. Jim has received the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Howard Lesnick Pro Bono Award and the Tahirih Justice Center’s Wings of Justice Award.  In 2008, Legal Times named him one of the “90 Greatest Washington Lawyers of the Last Thirty Years.” Want to learn more? Attend next month’s Awards Ceremony – featuring a keynote speech by State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh.

Poverty in Washington, DC

19 October 2012   Blog | Tags: ,

Washington, DC's poverty problem – and its effect on the legal system – is bigger than you think. To learn more, register for our Poverty Simulation – coming up on October 24 at 9:00 am.

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