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Photo: Skip Mark

2016 Legal Services Award: Thomas “Skip” Mark

By Jim Rubin

Thomas “Skip” Mark, winner of our 2016 Legal Services Award, has served many and achieved much as a managing attorney at the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. Indeed, he’s spent his entire career helping others and expanding access to justice.

Skip began his career by serving in the Peace Corps, teaching English to primary-school students in Turkmenistan, and then working for an international nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, helping to administer State Department-funded educational and cultural exchange programs aimed at students from the former Soviet Union.

After law school, Skip worked for three years as a staff attorney, and then as a supervising staff attorney, at Bread for the City. There, Skip helped hundreds of D.C. residents with housing issues, through the Court Based Legal Representation Project in the Landlord-Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court. Skip was regarded as an invaluable advocate and mentor; he helped volunteer lawyers even after the cases were referred to the Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic.

In 2011, Skip joined the DC Bar Pro Bono Center. As managing attorney, he oversees the Center’s housing-law practice: He manages the Landlord Tenant Resource Center that helps almost 5,000 D.C. residents each year. Skip also assists lawyers who are handling housing cases placed through the Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic; he mentors lawyers, advises them in court, and—as I can personally attest—returns calls from anxious volunteers and calmly walks them through the necessary steps. Skip also helped start a wills clinic, working with other lawyers to help low-income clients plan their estates.

Skip has helped too many lawyers to count. As one large law-firm pro bono coordinator described:

I have called upon Skip often for advice on how to proceed with our pro bono clients in a variety of situations, and he always makes time to listen to our issues and offer thoughtful, sound advice …. He has the patience of Job, and never makes any of the volunteers feel inadequate for asking stupid questions, even when a lot of the questions reflect great ignorance.

But Skip is more than a mentor and organizer. During his career, he has provided key services directly to those in need. A volunteer lawyer from another firm explained:

I do not exaggerate in the slightest when I say that there are hundreds of people in D.C. who have avoided being turned out on the streets because of Skip. There are hundreds more who have found relief from substandard and often inhumane living conditions. And, as to an oft-overlooked constituency, there are hundreds of landlords not saddled with abusive, unwanted tenants who have long overstayed their legal right of occupancy. Skip makes a real difference for the lawyers who staff the Landlord Tenant Resource Center; he makes a life-saving one for the customers who come there seeking our help.

Another added:

On countless occasions, we also have witnessed Skip’s gift for dealing with the pro se litigants in landlord tenant court, including many who are upset and frustrated by what they perceive as needless obstacles to getting what they want. He helps them feel comfortable and appreciated even when they may be in a difficult legal situation. He is calm and always empathetic. While other lawyers may lose patience and let signs of irritation creep into their voice, Skip is unfailingly polite, recognizing the humanity of everyone he speaks to. That is not to say that Skip is a pushover. He gets his point across firmly, but he does so with kindness and respect, effectively defusing tense situations.

Beyond his advocacy, Skip tries to improve the system for everyone. For example, he created an online-based system that allows you to complete voluminous pleadings using a “turbotax”-style interview format. He represents the Pro Bono Center on the District of Columbia Superior Court Advisory Subcommittee on Landlord-Tenant Rules and previously served on the Superior Court Housing Conditions Calendar Advisory Committee. Over the past two years, Skip has also assumed a leadership role in the D.C. Right to Housing Initiative, where he has helped to structure the Center’s participation in a Right to Counsel Project. And he recently coordinated a partnership with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to offer monthly seminars to educate landlords on the legal and regulatory guidelines for renting residential property in the District.

Skip’s work at the Pro Bono Center goes beyond housing issues; he has designed programs, recruited and trained volunteers, and expanded the range of the Pro Bono Center’s services across a variety of fields. How does one person get so much done and help so many people in so many areas? We don’t know, but as one of Skip’s many law-firm fans put it, “If we could clone a few more Skip Mark, we would come pretty close to closing the District’s access to justice gap.”

Jim Rubin is a Partner at Dorsey & Whitney and a board member and former Vice-President of Washington Council of Lawyers.