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A Dynamic Duo in the Fight for Affordable Housing

14 July 2013   Blog | Tags:

Our next Summer Intern Brown Bag Lunch, coming up on July 17, will focus on fair and affordable housing in Washington, DC. In advance of the event, Elise Helgesen Aguilar got in touch with speakers Julie Becker and Jenny Reed. They were kind enough to discuss their practice areas and passion for what they do—and even shared their secret desires for a particular super power. Beginnings Ms. Becker joined the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia in 2000, after graduating from Yale Law School and clerking for Sonia Sotomayor, at the time a judge on the Second Circuit. Ms. Becker always knew that she wanted to be a public-interest lawyer, but did not know she would specialize in fair housing. Once she became a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid, she learned more about the field of affordable housing and become passionate about the issue. She has worked at Legal Aid ever since, and she’s now a supervising attorney. Ms. Reed grew up in Maine. Her mother directed the Maine Human Rights Commission; her father was, and still is, a state representative. Issues of fairness, equality, and local government were always discussed in her house. Those discussions prompted her interest in state and local issues and how local policy could help—or, alas, sometimes hinder—opportunities for low-income residents. Later, while in graduate school, she became interested in statistics and tax policy. When she discovered DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) she knew it would be a great fit; the organization allows her to use data and research to drive policy solutions to the problems facing low- and moderate-income residents in DC. A Day in the Life Both women admit that each day is diverse and challenging. For Ms. Becker, this can mean going to court in the morning and serving as attorney for the day, or supervising other attorneys, and then meeting with new clients, conducting intake, writing motions and pleadings, attending coalition meetings, and coordinating with members from the housing authority. Ms. Reed says that she spends about half her time researching and crunching numbers, about one-fourth of her time talking with policymakers and DC government staff, and the remaining fourth of her time out in the community, giving presentations or attending meetings. It’s All Worth It Ms. Becker finds it most rewarding to work with her clients, and to help individual people solve individual problems. She also enjoys the mix of working directly with clients and reforming the law in ways to help improve housing policy throughout the city. Ms. Reed enjoys working on state and local issues because there she can really see the results of her work, and the impact she can have on local policy. DCFPI gives her the opportunity to work closely with the DC government and to be involved from start to finish in the process of identifying solutions to problems faced by DC’s low-income residents. Words of Wisdom For law students interested in pursuing this field of law, Ms. Becker advises that they should make the most of their summer internships, to really figure out what they like and dislike, and to make as many contacts with lawyers in the housing area as possible. Ms. Reed advises interested students to practice their ability to communicate complex problems in a manner that policymakers can understand. She believes that it’s critical to explain housing issues clearly and concisely. Superwomen Though each woman has the power to create real and lasting change in DC housing policy, both admit that their lives would be made easier if they had one superpower: to teleport or apparate from one place to the next. Despite their busy schedules, there would be no stopping them—if only they could avoid the metro.

Summer Forum 2013: Modern Family (Law)

13 June 2013   Blog

By Aleta Sprague Today 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’ve already taken a look at what attendees can hope to learn in the criminal law, civil rights, and transactional pro bono breakout sessions. Last but not least, today we’ll offer a quick preview of the family law panel. The field of family law is a growing and evolving rapidly. Since the 1970s, laws governing divorce, child support and child custody have changed significantly, in step with developing social norms. Often, family law attorneys are dealing with issues that are both time-sensitive and highly stressful for all parties involved. Furthermore, the strong need for free or low-cost family law services often greatly outstrips supply, and many family law litigants have no choice but to enter the courtroom without a lawyer. ProBono.Net offers an interactive service that helps unrepresented parties fill out essential court forms; in 2010, family law was the service’s most popular topic, and accounted for two-thirds of documents that visitors completed. Meanwhile, many states’ family law courts have come under increased strain due to the recession and inadequate funding. Clearly, working as a family lawyer, particularly in the public interest, is highly demanding–but it’s also incredibly important work, with a tradeoff of rewards and challenges like any other legal career. To get a better sense of the day-to-day work of a family law attorney, I reached out to Evelyn Becker, who will be moderating the Family Law breakout session. Ms. Becker recently served as the first pro bono director of the Children’s Law Center, and previously worked on a range of pro bono matters as a partner at O’Melveny & Myers. She offers her advice below. Are there any particular courses, law school activities, or summer experiences you would recommend for law students interested in a career in family law? Family lawyers are generally litigators, so trial-oriented courses such as evidence and trial advocacy are important. It’s also extremely helpful to spend some time at the Courthouse observing proceedings. An externship or clerkship with a Judge can provide valuable experience. Many law schools offer family law clinics–take advantage of these opportunities. What type of skillset do you think new attorneys need to successfully pursue a family law career? Family law lawyers need to be strong trial lawyers and negotiators. They need to have the patience, drive and flexibility for sometimes extended or unpredictable investigations. They need to work well with and relate to people with a wide variety of backgrounds and personalities. What is your favorite thing about working in this practice area? What are the key challenges? I love that you can make a real difference for people during a critical time in their lives and I enjoy meeting a variety of people. Family law is rarely boring. At the same time, the stakes are high and the emotions can be extremely intense. You will likely find yourself deeply moved by your clients’ stories and it can be a challenge to maintain a healthy objectivity. What can Forum attendees hope to learn during your breakout session? They will hear about the different types of family law practice from people who handle family law matters every day. The forum is helpful for people wanting to pursue a legal services career, or who want to have a pro bono practice involving family law. Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.

Summer Forum 2013: Pro Bono Work Is Not Just For Litigators!

11 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’re previewing each of the panels. Our third installment looks at pro bono opportunities for those who aren’t litigators. (Read our first installment on civil rights/civil liberties practice, and our second installment on criminal defense.) For new attorneys, taking on pro bono cases can be a great way to develop litigation skills while simultaneously filling a serious need for legal services within their community. Yet there are also extensive opportunities for transactional lawyers and other non-litigators to do pro bono work. A 2005 survey by the American Bar Association found that the top three areas of practice for pro bono hours are family law, business law, and consumer law. For example, attorneys can help non-profit organizations draft contracts, secure tax-exempt status, and handle real estate transactions. And skills common to business lawyers such as careful listening, problem solving, and negotiating complex bureaucracies have clear applicability to pro bono work. Yet the ABA survey also found that younger lawyers are far less likely than their older counterparts to engage in pro bono activities. This year’s Transactional and Non-Litigation Pro Bono session is designed to inspire new attorneys to take on this type of work and provide some guidance about the wide range of opportunities available to suit a variety of interests and skills. Susan Hoffman, the Public Service Partner at Crowell & Moring, will serve as moderator, and graciously took the time to answer some of my questions in advance. Below is our Q&A: Are there any particular courses, law school activities, or summer experiences you would recommend for law students interested in a non-litigation public interest career? There are clinics at some law schools that involve non-litigation projects that I would recommend. For example, at one law school, there is a consumer clinic that enlists students to assist in negotiating resolutions for clients. How does a new associate become involved with their firm’s pro bono practice? Are there leadership opportunities for junior attorneys? The best way for a new associate to get involved with the firm’s pro bono practice is to seek out and arrange a meeting with the firm’s pro bono coordinator. If the firm does not have a full-time coordinator, find out which attorney chairs the firm’s pro bono committee and express your interest. Taking the initiative will leave a favorable impression on that coordinator/attorney and get results. What skills and qualities enable you to be successful in your position? I think that creativity, patience as well as a willingness to listen closely to clients about their goals and needs has helped me to be successful in my position. What is your favorite thing about your job? What are the key challenges? I find it rewarding and professionally and personally satisfying to think that the work that I do makes a difference–in some cases for an individual and in others for our community as a whole. The biggest challenge that I face is saying “No”–in turning down projects or individuals seeking help–either because they do not qualify for pro bono services or because I don’t have attorneys with time and expertise to help. What can Forum attendees expect to learn during your breakout session? Attendees will learn about ways in which nonlitigation pro bono work can make a significant difference for others and for the community and how it can be just as personally rewarding as litigation pro bono work. Any other tips for law students interested in this practice area? I would recommend being open to trying new types of cases/projects. You never know when you will hit upon a case or project that inspires you! Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.

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.  

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