By Lydia Kotowski, Washington Council of Lawyers Intern
The Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) serves disadvantaged communities in Washington D.C. by connecting those in need of legal assistance with free legal services. Thanks to its dedication and its partnering organizations, NLSP has successfully helped hundreds of families obtain justice. But how did NLSP get its start, and who are the key players that have helped it to thrive?
In the 1950s, before NLSP was founded, Howard C. Westwood, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, conducted a series of studies that revealed there were many unmet legal needs in D.C.’s disadvantaged communities. His findings, coupled with the emergence of neighborhood-based legal aid offices as a concept, led to the creation of NLSP. For over 50 years, Covington has been a partner and supporter of NLSP. As far back as 1969, Covington began to send staff attorneys, paralegals, and secretaries to do six-month rotations at NLSP. Covington also supports the Howard C. Westwood Fellowship Program, which allows two recent law school graduates, who have a focus on public interest law, to work as staff attorneys for NLSP.
Covington is also unique in that it is one of the few major firms to partner on pro bono work in all four of NLSP’s main practice areas: housing, family law, public benefits, and consumer law. In the words of Hannah Leiberman, former executive director of NLSP, “It is impossible to capture even a fraction of the breadth and depth of Covington’s commitment to pro bono work, which literally spans the globe, involves every area of the firm’s practice and all kinds of lawyering. Covington’s efforts have contributed to a fairer system of justice and given true meaning to the concept of ‘equal access under law.’”
In addition to providing legal assistance to those who need it, the partnership also helps young lawyers and law professionals to gain experience in different substantive areas of law, litigation experience, and professional development. According to Taylor Steffan, a former Covington rotation associate who worked on housing matters at NLSP, the “stand-up experience from being in court translated really well into my everyday practice.” Similarly, Calvin Cohen, a current NLSP attorney on loan to NLSP and working in the family law division, said he “feels more confident and capable working with clients,” and has “learned how to manage cases from start to finish better.” When asked about what they gained from their time at NLSP, both Steffan and Cohen immediately commented on the sense of satisfaction and agency that comes with providing direct legal services to people in need. In the words of Cohen, NLSP attorneys are able to help “people with the very real problems they face on a daily basis.” Steffan commented on this impact as well, saying, “it is wonderful to feel like you are making a difference.”
The relationship between Covington and NLSP has a strong and profound history of helping to make justice accessible in the DC community. According to Karen Newton Cole, current Executive Director of NLSP, “NLSP and Covington are celebrating the 50th anniversary of our rotating associates program partnership. The Covington rotating associates program is the first full-time program of its kind and this year marks the longest rotation partnership between a firm and a legal services provider in Washington, DC.” It is indisputable that the free legal services provided by NLSP and Covington expand the reach of NLSP and change the lives of the clients served.
Lydia Kotowski interned with Washington Council of Lawyers during the summer of 2019.
Special thanks to Taylor Steffan and Calvin Cohen for agreeing to be interviewed for this article.