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Kirkland Lawyers Patrick Brown And Paul Suitter With Their Client, Wanda Alston.
Kirkland & Ellis attorneys Paul Suitter (left) and Patrick Brown (right) with their client, Gloria Alston, who came to Legal Aid's Big Chair office for help because her landlord failed to make needed repairs and remedy poor conditions in her apartment. Photo credit: Elliott O'Donovan Photography

Joining Forces to Bring Legal Services East of the River

The unique clinic partnership between the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis and the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia (“Legal Aid”) has had an unparalleled impact on the community East of the Anacostia River. After originally joining forces in Southwest D.C. in 2013, Legal Aid and Kirkland decided in 2015 to move the intake clinic to Legal Aid’s Southeast office at the Anacostia Professional Building, widely known in the community as “the Big Chair.” The decision to move was motivated by a desire to increase resources to address the ever-growing legal needs observed east of the Anacostia River, where one in three residents lives in poverty, and half in “deep poverty” (i.e., incomes at or below 50% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines). The clinic helps residents with legal issues related to housing, family law, domestic violence, public benefits, and consumer law.

The clinic is a major pro bono initiative of Kirkland’s D.C. office, with firm attorneys staffing weekly intake hours at Legal Aid’s office at the Big Chair and going on to represent clients in a variety of cases. In 2018 alone, Kirkland attorneys spent 2,600 hours conducting intake interviews and providing representation for clients referred from Legal Aid.  Over the past six years, Kirkland has provided full representation in 64 matters referred from Legal Aid. “We really value the opportunity to serve this community and are proud to work so closely with Legal Aid. It’s been an incredibly impactful project and we hope to continue it for a long time to come,” said Ruchi Jain, Pro Bono Counsel at Kirkland’s D.C. office.

The benefits of this partnership are felt by everyone involved. Residents and neighbors are able to access legal services in the community where they live. Participating Kirkland attorneys express that their hands-on experiences conducting intake interviews are some of the most rewarding interactions they have all year, and Legal Aid can expand its reach in an area of highly-concentrated poverty. “Kirkland’s sustained commitment of resources – both attorney/staff time and ongoing financial support – has made an immeasurable impact on our ability to make justice real for individuals and families living East of the River,” said Jodi Feldman, who heads up Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Program.

A shining example of the efficacy of this partnership is the case of Gloria Alston. Ms. Alston came to Legal Aid’s SE office for help and met with a Kirkland attorney about a housing issue. She had received a voucher that covered a portion of her monthly rent, but the D.C. Housing Authority had informed her that they were terminating their contract with her landlords, so she could no longer use her voucher to rent her apartment. Ms. Alston’s apartment had flooded twice, and the landlords had failed to properly remediate mold and mildew issues, resulting in failed inspections by the Housing Authority and exacerbating Ms. Alston’s asthma.  The building also had an unaddressed bedbug infestation, and this slew of problems, through no fault of the tenants, was jeopardizing access to this affordable housing opportunity.

Kirkland associates Patrick Brown and Paul Suitter decided to represent Ms. Alston in a civil suit against her landlords for damages resulting from gross negligence and violations of the Fair Housing Act, alleging that that the landlords had known of the poor conditions in Ms. Alston’s apartment since the time they had purchased the building and had ignored requests to fix the problems. After almost a year of litigation, Ms. Alston agreed to a settlement that provided the resources she needed to rent a new apartment in a different building. The perseverance, creativity, and dedication of the Kirkland team was crucial in obtaining this victory for Ms. Alston, and the partnership between Kirkland and Legal Aid is key in continuing to provide this type of legal assistance to EOTR residents.

By Jessalyn Schwartz, co-editor of East of the River Profiles Blog. Thank you to Hiba Abdallah for her contributions to this article.