By Peter Nye Longtime volunteer Andrew Doyle finds the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program Advice & Referral Clinic to be a rewarding way to serve people who lack other access to legal services, as well as a great way to learn about different areas of law. The Clinic brings dozens of attorney volunteers East of the River to the offices of Bread for the City on Good Hope Road SE, where they provide brief legal advice and referrals one Saturday morning each month. Andrew, an attorney at DOJ, first decided to participate in the Advice & Referral Clinic when the pro bono coordinator of DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division sought volunteers on a certain Saturday in 2010. Because he had recently heard a Washington Council of Lawyers presentation about the clinic, he volunteered that very Saturday. He was hooked, and ever since, he has volunteered almost every month the Clinic has had an open spot. Andrew finds Clinic work rewarding because—unlike his day job—volunteering allows him to provide prompt service to clients who are individuals. For one client with an insurance problem, Andrew immediately called the insurance company and resolved the dispute on the spot. For clients with custody issues, he has drafted letters to opposing lawyers about compliance with judges’ decrees. Most clients are immensely grateful for his help solving their problems. Of course, some clients cannot achieve the goals they most want to reach. For example, one client wanted to expunge his criminal record and then apply for a job. Andrew could not help him with that particular request, because the Clinic is limited to assisting with civil legal matters. Undeterred, Andrew helped the client develop a strategy for persuading employers that he was worth hiring despite his criminal record. Andrew says that most of his Clinic clients—including this one—who cannot achieve their initial goals are nonetheless thankful to have a lawyer research and analyze their problems. The clients can move forward, even if not in the direction they had initially hoped. Andrew encourages all DC-area lawyers to volunteer at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program Advice & Referral Clinic. He acknowledges that the work can be intimidating at first, but reassures volunteers that they will quickly adjust. He also points out that in addition to the satisfaction of helping his clients, he always learns about new areas of law by volunteering at the Clinic, especially because most of the legal issues that arise during Clinic hours are ones that he does not handle at the DOJ. Learning about new areas of law and helping people at the same time make the Clinic an ideal pro bono experience. To learn more about volunteering with Washington Council of Lawyers at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program Advice & Referral Clinic, please contact Renee Kostick Reynolds.
By Dominique Rouge Rachel Morris, a student in Georgetown University’s Street Law Clinic, stands in the middle of a classroom of high school students and asks them to stand up. She designates one side of the room as “yes” and another as “no” and begins to ask a series of questions such as: “Is it okay for the police to enter Bob's house if they smell marijuana?” “Can the police arrest Bob if they received an anonymous tip that he is selling marijuana?” “Does reasonable suspicion allow the police to arrest Bob?” Rachel teaches at Anacostia Senior High in Southeast DC, which has an academic program specifically designed for students interested in legal issues. Georgetown Law students participating in the Street Law High School Clinic teach a two-semester elective course in practical law to students in fourteen high schools throughout DC —Rachel’s class is just one element of the students' curriculum. The Street Law program uses the law and legal scenarios to help high school students develop academic skills such as reading, writing, active listening, oral expression, problem solving, and analytical thinking. The program also dovetails with the high school civics curriculum. Rachel engages the students by teaching practical applications of legal matters that they will find relevant. Although the students understand applications of basic legal terms like “warrant” and “reasonable suspicion,” Rachel comments that she hopes to improve the students’ ability to articulate their ideas. In Rachel’s case, she not only empowers students living in low-income communities by developing their legal vocabulary, but also exposes students to legal concepts and legal training they can apply in their communities and professional lives.
By Dominique Rouge A group of lawyers sits around an oval table sipping coffee, tired like the early Saturday sky. Just as a silence has settled, a young woman walks in, arms full of clipboards. She fires out case descriptions, asking “who wants it?” Eviction, will settlement, medical malpractice, custody disputes, domestic abuse: a slew of poverty nightmares calls the lawyers to attention. Each stands up, takes a case, and walks downstairs to meet their client. So goes a typical morning at the DC Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advice and Referral Clinic, at which lawyers from all over the profession volunteer four hours of their time to give advice to drop-in clients living in poverty. The Clinic’s East of the River office, hosted by Bread for the City at their Southeast D.C. center, was packed with clients, both new and returning. The lawyers served 40 clients on the morning I visited. Some worked on viable cases with the volunteer lawyers; others waited in line to be told that their problem had no legal dimension. All bore the burden of a substantial, unexpected dilemma in their lives. The lawyers who work at the Advice and Referral Clinic on the first Saturday of each month do substantial, important work. No one lacked the comradery or assistance they needed, however. As clients cycled through the first floor, lawyers ran back up to the second floor to check in with mentors at the oval table. As they sipped more coffee and munched more bagels, attorneys from various fields counseled other attorneys on how to handle a case. As mentors created a sense of ease for lawyers, so too did lawyers for clients. Though the building was rushed and busy, I heard sounds of reassurance, confidence, and even laughter ring throughout. The cases clients brought to the Southeast clinic ran the gamut of subject and severity, yet the lawyers were alert to meet them with both knowledge and compassion.
By Aja Taylor (This blog post originally appeared on the Bread for the City blog, and is reposted here with permission.) In early 2013, Bread for the City’s Taylor Healy and I worked with a group of (very awesome) seniors at Victory Square Senior Apartments to get them a bus stop in front of their building. We organized them, helped them draft testimony and they kicked butt and successfully changed their access to a major transportation system (woot woot for systemic change! See the blog post here.). We worked with those same seniors to do some deeper training around how to self-organize and even took three of them to a WIN training to get EVEN MORE tools. They were incredibly engaged and eager to learn more about how to fight for themselves. This past November, residents from Mayfair (another housing complex in the Kenilworth neighborhood of DC) and an organizer/colleague from DCPNI, approached us about some changes that WMATA wanted to make to their bus route. Essentially, WMATA wanted to end bus service to the ONLY grocery store in the neighborhood (dumb!), and hadn’t really kept the community at large in the loop about the changes. Once residents found out, they wanted to do something. We talked to our Victory Square residents, had a couple of strategy sessions with stakeholders and leaders from each of the buildings in Kenilworth, DCPNI and the ANC, so that we could get a plan together. The residents organized a meeting with WMATA on November 13th where they turned out (after one week of work!) OVER 40 community members to a meeting where they told Metro their demands. Besides making flyers (shout-out to Andrew Lomax!), the professional organizers/lawyers took a back seat, and the residents really made sure that their voices were heard and their stories came through. They used the training that they’d received, and some tips from the pre-meetings, and they ROCKED it! Last week, WMATA’s top dog of bus planning sent a letter saying that they are recommending to the Board of Directors that none of the scheduled changes take place at this time. They heard the community loud and clear, and the community WON! THIS is what happens when you equip people with the tools and knowledge necessary to affect change for themselves and their communities. This wasn’t a bunch of paid organizers and lawyers making this happen, but it absolutely was a beautiful manifestation of our investments in these residents and this community. Changing a transportation system is HARD WORK–almost impossible–and in Kenilworth, they’ve kicked butt TWICE! WMATA is the largest single employer outside of the government in this area–a multi-billion dollar business–and it takes guts to go up against big money and fight. I’m just overwhelmed with pride right now, and I’m so thankful to end 2014 on this note! THIS is the sort of rock-star stuff the Community Lawyering project does. Whoohoo! Aja’s work is made possible in part through private funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation.
By Mike Mazzella Instant gratification. That is exactly what Ebonee Avery-Washington gets from her job at Legal Counsel for the Elderly. “I’m arming them with knowledge,” Ebonee told me when I met with her to discuss her work East of the River. Ebonee’s mission as a legal associate for Legal Counsel for the Elderly is a simple one: to assist low-income, elderly residents of the District of Colombia with their everyday legal issues. The problems she helps resolve range from consumer issues to accessing public benefits. She travels all over the Northeast and Southeast quadrants, including spending time at Capital View Baptist Church and Bread for the City’s Southeast office. Each client is unique, and each problem she handles requires an individualized approach. Recently, Ebonee assisted an elderly client who had problems with a home repair project. Her client was an 89-year-old woman looking to have the air ducts in her home cleaned. The client contracted with a company to clean the ducts, agreeing to pay more than a thousand dollars for the repairs. The company came to the client’s home, but the services provided were substandard and not performed as contracted. The company refused to come back to repair the work, and sent the client a bill. The client, shocked by the unwarranted charges, turned to Ebonee for help. Together the two contacted the company to challenge the unjust bills. “She was able to handle it, she’s a smart woman, but it was nice to lend her a helping hand,” explained Ebonee. Ebonee’s advice to lawyers and law students thinking of contributing their time and skills East of the River is to go for it! “Just do it! There are so many opportunities to learn and grow. The work is worthwhile, challenging, and gratifying. I have encountered a great deal of professionalism and high standards in my work with East of the River communities.”
By Chinh Le & Mike Mazella Ms. Moore (name changed to maintain client confidentiality) came to Legal Aid’s office in Anacostia (the one with the Big Chair in front) for help with her eviction case. Her landlord had sued to evict her for nonpayment of rent. The Legal Aid attorney staffing the Big Chair office met with Ms. Moore that day and was able to refer her to a Legal Aid attorney at our courthouse office for further assistance with her housing issue. When Ms. Moore came to the courthouse office, her case was scheduled for a bench trial that same day. Her situation looked bleak. However, Ms. Moore credibly disputed the rent amount that the landlord was charging her. Indeed, the Legal Aid lawyer was able to determine that the landlord had unlawfully increased her rent by 30% during the initial lease term. A Legal Aid lawyer helped Ms. Moore stay in her home and avoid eviction. The attorney negotiated an agreement that reduced the balance by almost 90%, reduced Ms. Moore’s monthly rent to the correct amount going forward, and required the landlord to complete all outstanding repairs to the apartment. Ms. Moore and her attorney were able to navigate the situation together, allowing Ms. Moore to live comfortably in her home.
By Chinh Le & Mike Mazella Mr. Brown (name changed to maintain client confidentiality) and his wife came to the Big Chair office in Southeast D.C., because they had been sued as squatters by their landlord. A few weeks prior, they had received a favorable administrative decision resolving a tenant petition they filed against their landlord to contest an illegal rent increase. Rather than accept or appeal the administrative order, the landlord ignored it and sued Mr. Brown as a squatter in landlord-tenant court. The case was based on the landlord’s claim that Mr. Brown, who had rented his current unit since 1994, was not a tenant of that unit, and was only permitted to reside in a studio unit that he had previously rented from 1986–1994. Legal Aid filed a motion to dismiss the landlord-tenant case. The pro se landlord decided that she needed to hire an attorney, which she did and shortly thereafter voluntarily dismissed the case before the hearing. Mr. Brown had been struggling with complications from a stroke and has great difficulty communicating and getting around. Throughout the hearings, Mr. Brown’s attorney met him and his wife at the Big Chair office and at their home, so that Mr. Brown could avoid having to travel and cut down his transportation time to the court. What began as a mentally and potentially physically stressful problem for Mr. Brown and his wife ended happily as a result of Legal Aid’s help through our presence at the Big Chair.