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DC Pro Bono Week 2022 Profile: Pro Bono Work Comes in Many Forms

By Gabby Mulnick Majewski

Maya Angelou profoundly said, “If you’re going to live, leave a legacy.  Make a mark on the world that can’t be erased.”  I am reminded of this quote when I reflect on Mary Gately’s profound service and deep commitment to the pro bono work she performs as DC Affordable Law Firm’s Litigation Director, a role she performs entirely on a pro bono basis.  Across the past three years, Mary’s work with and on behalf of DC Affordable Law Firm’s clients soared to unprecedented levels, leading to exceptional legal outcomes for dozens of DC Affordable Law Firm’s low- and modest-income clients while synchronously shaping and inspiring the careers of the next generation of public interest attorneys.

DC Affordable Law Firm (“DCALF”) was founded in 2015 with the singular mission of providing high-quality, affordable legal services to hardworking DC residents who, in spite of employment, fall into the “forgotten middle” when it comes to civil legal services — they do not qualify for free legal services, but are unable to afford representation by private attorneys.  DCALF is a unique organization utilizing teams DCALF Fellows, recent graduates from Georgetown University Law Center and the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, represent low- and modest-income DC residents in family law, immigration, and probate matters.  DCALF’s vision is twofold – to eliminate inequities in DC’s civil justice system and provide exceptional training to the next generation of public interest attorneys committed to closing the access to justice gap.

It is clear why the visionary architects of DC Affordable Law Firm involved Mary in the early days of DCALF’s establishment:  Mary is an exceptional litigator with more than thirty years tenure with DLA Piper who carries a deep-seated commitment to social justice and the desire to serve her community.  Mary is a natural teacher, someone who has long taught NITA courses simply to “pay it forward” and share her wisdom with junior attorneys cultivating their careers.  Mary does not differentiate her DCALF clients from her DLA Piper clients — she brings her talent and vast resources in full and without hesitation to tackle whatever challenges may arise in the cases.  With Mary’s support over the past seven years, our attorneys have achieved remarkable client outcomes:  securing divorces, equitable property distributions, and custody arrangements that safeguarded the best interests of children; empowering domestic violence survivors to use the court system to keep minor children out of the hands of abusive parents; and championing the rights of fathers longing to be active, loving caregivers to their children.  Mary’s dedication to DCALF’s Fellows is second only to her commitment, compassion, and inherent respect for the clients DCALF is privileged to serve.

While Mary’s early, steady contribution to DCALF was essential to our success, in 2020, when the pandemic forced physical office closures and we shifted to remote operations, Mary played an even more expansive role in casework and helping the fellows stay connected and feel supported during the difficult transition.  What we envisioned as deeper engagement in one or two additional cases quickly snowballed; as our Fellows became accustomed to turning to Mary for counsel, she quickly became a crucial and trusted resource for support in our most complex family law matters.  In turn, Mary’s DCALF portfolio rapidly grew.  By the fall of 2020, Mary was fully engrossed in thirteen different DCALF matters, supporting the work of every attorney in our organization – all while maintaining a robust portfolio of work on behalf of her DLA Piper clients.  In sum, over the past three years, Mary performed over 1,011 hours of pro bono service, nearly all of which went to serving DCALF’s low- and modest-income clients and the young lawyers handling their cases.

Numbers alone cannot capture the breadth and magnitude of Mary’s contributions.  Her offerings are abundant and span the gamut of all aspects of zealous, client-centered representation.  Because our infrastructure is limited, Mary, although not a staff member, provides continuity of client services and institutional knowledge as the cases transition between classes of attorneys.  Mary reviews litigation plans, trial preparation, motions, discovery requests, and responses, offering thoughtful feedback and suggestions to help our young attorneys find their own voices while simultaneously coaching their growth and self-confidence and ensuring clients’ interests are fully protected.  Each year, she facilitates conversations with attorneys around time management and work-life balance, leads cross-examination simulations, and facilitates advanced discovery workshops.  In her external work on DCALF’s behalf, Mary is right there beside our attorneys, participating in emergency evening calls with opposing counsel to discuss child custody exchanges gone awry, engaging in hours of judicial mediation and depositions, counseling clients through difficult moments, and appearing with our attorneys in virtual court hearings and contested trials.  Mary serves as a safety net for our attorneys, intrinsically knowing when to offer sage perspectives as a seasoned litigator or ratchet up her involvement to enhance our attorneys’ advocacy.  Though it would be easy for Mary to shoulder pro bono cases on her own, Mary is committed to only entering an appearance in a case in conjunction with a DCALF attorney, as she sees co-counseling as an opportunity to build relationships and delicately coach fellows to achieve their full potential as advocates.

Our long-running office joke is that time must magically move at a different pace for Mary; there is simply no other explanation for her ability to always find time and give herself so fully to every person, every case, and every conversation, all while managing her own practice and family needs.  When DCALF hired our organization’s first full-time, in-house legal director, Mary dedicated hours to work alongside me to find the right candidate to fill such a critical role.  Once our legal director joined DCALF in August 2021, Mary didn’t skip a beat in her work on DCALF’s behalf.  Mary continued her work full-throttle alongside all DCALF attorneys while teaming with DCALF’s legal director to deliver high-quality outcomes for clients.

As we enter our eighth year of Mary’s work with DC Affordable Law Firm, the seeds she has planted across our community continue to bloom and flourish.  The young DCALF attorneys Mary has groomed have gone on to represent DC residents through post-DCALF employment with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, Legal Aid Society, DC Volunteer Lawyers’ Project, Children’s Law Center, and Tzedek DC, while dozens more have brought their talents to legal services organizations and pro bono practices in California, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, New York, Texas, and elsewhere.  Mary has become a trusted life coach to no less than a dozen of the DCALF alumni she has counseled over the years, offering them career and personal advice over coffee, Zooms, or meals at her home.  Mary’s impact grows exponentially with each passing year of DCALF cases and fellows, and, through her direct and indirect service, she continues to make an indelible mark on the lives of hardworking Washingtonians eager for legal assistance and on the young attorneys for whom she is an inspiration, counselor, and trusted confidante.   Mary Gately is the epitome of selfless service and consummate dedication to the next generation of attorneys.  She is a pro bono attorney unlike any other, and it is an honor to share Mary’s many contributions to our community.

Gabby Mulnick Majewski, Executive Director of DC Affordable Law Firm

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