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DC Pro Bono Week 2020: Pro Bono Goes Local Kicks Off The Celebration

By Shea Hazel

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, 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. Moderated by Washington Council of Lawyers’ Executive Director, Nancy Lopez, the energy was infectious and the call to action remains undeniable.

“During tough times, lawyers step up.  And, in the District of Columbia, lawyers step up even more.” – Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby

The Honorable Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court for the District, reminded us that the need for pro bono lawyers is great. She reflected that over 133,000 people in D.C. filed for unemployment as of July 2020. She noted the huge wealth gap and people living in poverty in the District who greatly need help with domestic violence, child custody, appeals, and more, which they struggle to handle on their own, without legal assistance. The number one goal is ensuring access to justice to all which means greater collaborations and partnerships to come and take on these cases. Judge Blackburne-Rigsby also reminded us to spread the word about the good work being done.

“We want to ensure the courts are providing justice to all.” – Chief Judge Josey-Herring

The Honorable Anita Josey-Herring, Chief Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, praised pro bono lawyers saying, “we are so thankful and we know you do it [pro bono] because it’s the right thing to do.” So many litigants are representing themselves, and it’s a great service, to help the poor, to help the community.  She noted, “because of the pandemic, it is so important that we all redouble our efforts because the need is even greater now.”  We must continue to close the gap to make sure litigants have access to justice.

Pro Bono Can Have a Profound Impact on Both Client and Lawyer

Jo Bahn and Keith Matthews are two of the many pro bono superstars in our community.  They reminded us that every case, big or small, is important, and those who provide pro bono services are invaluable! It is important to impact our community in positive ways as lawyers and to learn the skills we need to give back.

Jo Bahn, a Federal government attorney, reflected on the importance of relationships lawyers can have with their clients and that, most of the time, litigants just need someone to advocate on their behalf.  For example, last year there were 30,000 landlord-tenant cases filed in DC courts, 25,000 of which tenants were unrepresented. “The need is only going to increase as COVID continues,” she said,  “I encourage you to take a case.”

Keith Matthews, of Wiley LLP,  began by sharing, “everyone who provides pro bono services in a superstar.”  He reflected that the mere presence of an attorney at a landlord-tenant case can make all the difference. The District anticipates a tidal wave of eviction actions that will result once moratoriums are removed.  In cases where an unrepresented, non-lawyer, tenant-Defendant, is standing against a tenant’s attorney, a pro bono attorney can bring balance to the situation. Pro bono lawyers are particularly needed in family court as well. He noted that “pro bono child custody work is extremely meaningful.”

Call to Action!

  • Sign up! Take a case or two!
  • Encourage a colleague or friend to volunteer their pro bono services.
  • Consider pro bono work at the appellate level.
  • Consider providing mediator support.
  • Check out the affiliated trainings and ways to engage now.
  • Collaborate with pro bono lawyers who are experts in their respective fields.

Finding Pro Bono Opportunities is Easy

  • If are interested in taking on a pro bono project, the DC Virtual Pro Bono Fair can help you connect with the right organization.
  • For an extensive list of in-house pro bono opportunities, to include programs and resources, and ways to get involved in person and remotely, check out In-House Pro Bono In The Time of Covid-19 Recap and Volunteer Opportunities.
  • In an effort to ask everyone to expand their pro bono efforts, DC REPRESENTS was just launched. Led by a coalition of representatives from DC’s legal service providers, law schools, law firms, and the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, this campaign is a challenge to our legal community to expand our commitment to helping District residents manage civil legal problems made much harder due to COVID. More information on projects, training, organizations, and an interactive pro bono calendar is available here.
  • Join the Washington Council of Lawyers to build your network in the Public Interest and Pro Bono Community, learn about pro bono opportunities, and develop the tools you need to meet clients where they are at and help the heart of the District – our people.

While we celebrate local pro bono lawyers for the services and efforts they provide on behalf of those who cannot afford a lawyer, we encourage increased engagement in light of the current climate. Sign up and encourage colleagues and friends to engage in pro bono legal activities.

Check out anything you missed on our Pro Bono Publico Blog and engage in the discussion on social media using #DCProBono20.

Shea Hazel is a law student at UMass Law and Legal Intern for Washington Council of Lawyers.