By Heather Krick On Wednesday, December 9, 2020, we hosted Spotlight on Evictions, a virtual conversation with Emily Benfer, Chair of the ABA's Covid-19 Taskforce on Evictions. First, the program opened with remarks from current ABA President Patricia Lee Refo. Tricia acknowledged that the United States is facing an unprecedented need for pro bono lawyering and reminded us that lawyers can help limit the number of evictions. She discussed the ABA's advocacy in Congress for a renewed moratorium on evictions. The draft stimulus bill, which Congress is set to pass shortly, includes an extension of the national eviction moratorium through January 2021. She also thanked the many lawyers who have taken on pro bono cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, Taryn Wilgus Null, government attorney and member of the Washington Council of Lawyers Board of Directors, moderated a discussion with Emily about the eviction crisis, which already existed pre-pandemic and has only been exacerbated during the pandemic. The facts and context Emily provided are sobering. Before the novel coronavirus pandemic began, about 50% of the renter population (or 20.8 million families) were paying 30% of their income to rent. Seven evictions were filed every minute when the unemployment rate was at 4.7%. Racially discriminatory housing practices resulted in a lack of wealth accumulation among people of color who have approximately 1/12 of the wealth accumulation of their white counterparts. Emily highlighted the purpose and effect of eviction moratoriums. Currently, Washington, DC has a moratorium on evictions, but 31 states do not have strong protections in place. Earlier in the pandemic, in May, 43 states had protections in place against evictions. This is important because eviction filings spike within weeks after moratoriums end and protections cease. In some cities, filings rose 385%. The mere filing of an eviction case can lead to decreased housing stability. Regardless of the outcome of the case, the filing can lower credit scores, hinder loan eligibility, or create barriers to future employment. Connections Between Evictions and Health Inequity Emily then explained that the single greatest predictor of eviction is the presence of a child in the home. As a result, families are often the ones evicted from their homes. This can have negative consequences on health well into the future. She noted evictions are associated with health conditions in children such as emotional trauma, risk of chronic disease in adulthood, decreased life expectancy, setbacks in education, and food insecurity. Some conditions shown in women who are evicted include drug-use and related harms, pre-term pregnancy, and physical or sexual assault. She went on to demonstrate how evictions are also correlated with an increase in physical and mental health conditions, including higher mortality rates, higher blood pressure, respiratory conditions, sexually transmitted infections, depression, anxiety, mental health hospitalizations, and suicides. Additionally, evictions cause families to seek alternatives which include staying with relatives or friends. Emily elucidated how an increase in home size by just two people can double the exposure risk of respiratory infections like the novel coronavirus. An overcrowded residential environment also makes it difficult to adhere to CDC recommended COVID-19 protocols, such as increased hand washing, self-quarantining, wearing clean masks, sheltering in place, and social distancing. With a link between moratorium lifts and an increase in mortality rates, evictions frustrate efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Effects are stronger in states with weaker moratoriums. Some experts estimate that between May and September of 2020, evictions led to an additional 430,000 preventable cases of COVID-19 and 10,700 preventable deaths. Emily further explained that people of color are much more likely to be affected by evictions and their accompanying health impacts. During this past summer, African American renters had low or slight confidence in their ability to pay the next month's rent compared to white renters who consistently had high confidence in their ability to make rent payments. Black and Hispanic adults are dying at the same rates as white people who are a decade or older than them. What can we do? Emily had several suggestions for how lawyers can get involved. We need to freeze the initiation stage of evictions and ensure that the freeze applies to all renters. We can increase access to counsel for tenants in eviction cases. Without counsel, winnable cases more frequently default in the landlord's favor. We can create diversion programs that include a right to counsel. While there are rent relief programs available, the demand is so high that the funds get depleted within one day and sometimes in hours. Programs with funds still available are setting the bar too high for those in need to access the funds. Two actions that lawyers can take are to 1) take a pro bono eviction case, and 2) advocate for better fair housing policies. Emily highlighted one tax attorney in Texas who was so moved by the situation that they started taking pro bono cases and prevented four thousand evictions alone. After the pandemic is over, the work will have just begun. Legal representation in housing court can make a huge difference. In 2019, approximately 84% of tenants represented by counsel remained in their homes, and default judgments dropped by 34%. Pro bono lawyers will be more important than ever in helping families maintain secure housing. Hope for the Future Hope in this dark moment comes from remembering that many lawyers have already taken on pro bono cases and are continuing…
As the year draws to a close, we look back on our advocacy efforts supporting the Washington Council of Lawyers' mission of a fair justice system for everyone, regardless of money, position, or power. During this challenging year, we have taken action on the issues on which we have a longstanding track record of leadership and advocacy. As the pandemic began to affect our most vulnerable citizens and their access to legal services and the courts, we also swiftly pivoted to address these new challenges in the context of our ongoing work in improving access to justice for all individuals.
Paul Smith has been recognized as one of the "nation's elite litigators," whose "profound commitment to advancing civil liberties make him a legal force to be reckoned with," as well as someone who is "down to earth but also brilliant." Washington Council of Lawyers knows him to be all these things, as well as our long-time board and honorary board member, former President, and frequent guest speaker at our events. We are so honored to recognize Paul with our 2020 Presidents Award for Public Service.
DC Pro Bono Week 2020 is a wrap, but the inspiration to make a difference in our community and the celebration of pro bono service continues. We know the work doesn't stop, and the pandemic has created a legal needs crisis the likes of which are unprecedented. As lawyers, we have a duty and obligation to help bridge the access to justice gap. Whether it's by taking on a pro bono case, volunteering for an advice and referral clinic, contributing to systemic advocacy, or financially supporting a legal services organization, we can all do something for the public good.
America is known as a nation of immigrants. It is a country that prides itself on being a melting pot and for welcoming people from many different countries, races, and religions, all hoping to find freedom, new opportunities, and a better way of life. A Conversation With Kids About Immigrants and Fairness was an event hosted by Washington Council of Lawyers on October 27, 2020, to talk to younger children about why people come to America, the challenges they face, the injustices they overcome, and what lawyers can do to assist the immigrant community.
Meeting clients where they are at is one of the most essential lawyering skills, made only more essential in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis. On Monday, October 26, 2020, as part of DC Pro Bono Week 2020, the Washington Council of Lawyers hosted Coding Justice, a panel discussion on how to best serve clients remotely and keep them engaged.
There is a tremendous need for pro bono service in the District and there is a myriad of opportunities to get involved and make a direct impact in our community. On Monday, October 26, 2020, the Washington Council of Lawyers kicked off DC's Annual Pro Bono Week with the Chief Judges of the D.C. Courts, inspiring pro bono lawyers, and pivotal information about ways to help those in our community address legal needs.
Racial segregation persists in America. On Tuesday, October 20, the Washington Council of Lawyers sponsors a timely discussion among a panel of experts examining both the historical and the present dimensions of racial segregation in housing. Specifically, the panelists discussed the myriad ways federal, state, and local policies have promoted structural racial inequality in education, public health, voting, criminal justice, and more.
The numbers are shocking. Within two weeks of Mayor Bowser declaring a public health emergency back in mid-March, nearly 28,000 District of Columbia workers had filed claims for unemployment insurance (UI) – more claims than had been filed in the entire previous fiscal year. And that was just the beginning. As of September 22, more than 145,000 jobless workers have filed UI claims in the District, a historic wave of unemployment. In response, Legal Aid has mobilized significant internal and pro bono resources to meet the increased need for legal help. A team from Arnold & Porter stepped up to provide significant assistance in the effort to protect these workers.
Since joining Legal Counsel for the Elderly's Advisory Board five years ago, Arnold & Porter Partner Daniel Cantor has zealously defended D.C. seniors with limited means from eviction and homelessness. His exemplary pro bono work has resulted in life-changing victories that enabled his clients to stay in their homes.
Brad Guest volunteers his time to support D.C.'s small businesses because for the clients "this is often their life's dream, something they've poured their time and energy into often exclusively for a long time. Receiving pro bono legal advice may be the only opportunity for these individuals to get answers to questions that could not only impact their business, but also their personal risk and liability."
Join us for the first of this year's three-part Racial Justice Series examining institutional racism and how to advocate for real and lasting change for our clients. At our first event, our panel will examine both the history and the present reality of housing segregation and how federal, state, and local policies have affected and advanced systems of structural racial inequality in education, public health, voting, criminal justice, and more.
In December 2018, residents across the District were preparing for the holidays and enjoying the comfort of their warm homes. However, for those living in a Brightwood Park apartment complex, a fire broke out leaving six families without a place to call home. The children who lost their homes in the fire that night were not only traumatized – their health had been endangered by unsafe housing. Children's Law Center attorneys and investigators, led by Senior Supervising Attorney Kathy Zeisel, filed a complaint and secured temporary Red Cross shelter for the six families. But in an atypical moment for our organization, we brought in Williams & Connolly to co-counsel, knowing that an unusual case this size needed pro bono help from a team of fierce civil litigators. That team included firm associates Tracey A. Fung, Michaela Wilkes Klein and Tony Sheh, with partner Andy Keyes providing support and supervision.
Kristin Whidby is not a typical senior litigation associate. She handles complex IP, real estate, and securities litigation matters for a wide range of clients, but she does much more. She's also the mother of four young children, and in recent months has added the demands of managing remote learning to her other parental responsibilities. On top of all that, Kristin has continued to be an active volunteer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, providing direct representation to clients and serving on its Junior Board.
DV LEAP is fortunate to work with so many pro bono attorneys who make our work on behalf of family violence survivors possible. Each brings unique skills and commitment to our cases; each makes a critical difference in survivors' lives. Jennifer Swize, however, stands out for the breadth of the impact she has made—on both our clients and DV LEAP as a whole.
Anam Rahman was instilled with the values of philanthropy, altruism, and empathy from a young age. As a fluent Spanish speaker, Anam has been volunteering at D.C.-based immigration clinics like the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center's Immigration Legal Advice & Referral Clinic and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.'s Board of Immigration Appeals Pro Bono Project for years. "Finding the time to volunteer and do pro bono work reminds me of why I became an immigration attorney in the first place: to help people and families," Anam said.
Globally, 2020 has been a difficult year and the immigration legal field has been no exception. Changes, such as new asylum rules, attempts to raise fees and alter filing procedures, and developments in case law, have made an already complex area of law much harder to navigate. The majority of unaccompanied children lack representation in their immigration cases. Representing unaccompanied immigrant children can be complicated, as the majority of these children come to the United States after surviving trauma and leaving families and communities behind to seek safety from unthinkable situations. Further, these children are placed in removal proceedings with no guaranteed access to counsel or an adult to speak on their behalf. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to add further stress on this already vulnerable population, as low-income living and working circumstances increase the risk of contracting the virus, children lose access to supports in educational settings, caretakers are unemployed, and community supports are more difficult to access. Ellen Bass has come out of retirement to help these children find peace and safety.
Two of CAIR Coalition's longstanding pro bono partners, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, recently collaborated with each other and CAIR Coalition to profoundly change the life of a young Honduran child whom the government-held for nearly a year in prolonged immigration detention. In doing so, their teams of talented attorneys advanced cutting-edge litigation that will help many similarly situated children.
Shea Hazel joins the Washington Council of Lawyers as our virtual intern this fall. Shea is from Boston, Massachusetts, and will proudly graduate UMass Law in May 2021. She is a UMass Law Public Interest Law Fellow, Advisor to the Veterans Law Association, Vice President of the International Law Students Association, and a member of this year’s Phillip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition team. Shea serves in the United States Air Force Reserve in Washington, D.C.
Washington Council of Lawyers co-sponsored and co-organized a timely and well attended virtual program, "In-House Pro Bono in the Time of Covid-19" on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. (Access the recording here.) Ninety-eight attendees heard presentations by seven legal service providers on currently unmet critical needs and virtual opportunities for in-house and other attorneys. We were proud to co-sponsor this event with the Association of Corporate Counsel of the National Capital Region, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) program from the Pro Bono Institute, and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center.
If you're looking for a job right now, I want to offer solidarity and advice. I just completed a job search this summer and I feel what you're going through. You will pull through this. In the meantime, I hope these resources can help. There are already many practical tips out there to help you apply for and interview for jobs remotely.