By Craig Welkener As DC's affordable housing crisis deepens, Beth Harrison and other advocates have created an innovative program for people on the brink of eviction, pushing the boundaries of what has been possible in legal aid. By identifying at-risk tenants even before their eviction notices arrive, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project is making real help more available than ever before. Although housing laws in the District are complex, the vast majority of individuals facing eviction are too poor to pay for an attorney. Legal services have historically been limited to those with the time to track down a nonprofit lawyer ahead of time, or those who take advantage of last minute, on-the-spot help provided by the Landlord Tenant Court-Based Legal Services Project. That project, which provides housing attorneys on a same-day basis, was funded by the city in 2007. However, that paradigm has begun to change, with the start of the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project. Beth Harrison, the director of the project, has worked in the trenches from the beginning. After earning her law degree from Harvard, Harrison arrived at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia in 2005 as an entry-level housing attorney. At that time, Legal Aid's housing law program consisted of only three full-time staff attorneys, one fellow, and two loaned attorneys from law firms. The work received a boost in 2007, when the DC Council appropriated funds to subsidize legal counsel for the poor. Legal Aid's housing work has grown since then to twelve permanent lawyers and three loaned associates. As Harrison explains, these changes have meant that advocates can serve more clients, and "a big piece of that has been the city's choice to appropriate that funding." But vast gaps remain. The DC Bar Pro Bono Center reports that currently 95% of tenants remain unrepresented, while 90% to 95% of landlords pay for an attorney. Systemic problems call for sustainable solutions. And the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project—run by Legal Aid, Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the DC Bar Pro Bono Center—is futuristic in its design. "We are reviewing all eviction cases as they are filed with the court," Harrison explains. For approximately one out of every seven cases involving subsidized housing, "we send a letter saying we want to represent you." If the tenant accepts the help, a lawyer begins working on their case pro bono—even before the tenant receives an eviction notice. The program began in 2015, and relies on a smorgasbord of local nonprofits and law firm pro bono work to accomplish the mission. By providing help exactly when people can use it the most, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project has the potential to truly change the norm of the unrepresented tenant. Perhaps this is the wave of the future. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie recently introduced the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016, which would increase funding for similar housing projects. Guaranteeing a broad “right to counsel … in civil cases involving fundamental human needs" is McDuffie’s long-term goal. Harrison is certainly inspired. "The legal work that we do here is incredibly challenging and rich. And the interaction with the clients of course is an ongoing benefit. It's an ongoing inspiration to keep doing the work." Craig Welkener is a volunteer with the Washington Council of Lawyers, a Ward 8 resident, and a Georgetown graduate clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Our 2014 Law Firm Award goes to our longtime friends at Sidley Austin LLP. Sidley is a global law firm with more than 1,800 lawyers in 18 offices around the world, including in Washington, DC. While often hired to handle complex transactions and “bet the company” litigation, Sidley also recognizes its profound responsibility to use its lawyers’ skills and experience to provide services to individuals and organizations that otherwise would be unable to afford legal representation. “Pro bono is something our firm’s management cares deeply about and takes personally,” say Jeffrey Green, partner and firm-wide chair of Sidley’s Pro Bono Committee, and Becky Troth, pro bono counsel for Sidley’s Washington, D.C. office. As one indication of the firm’s commitment to pro bono work, Sidley’s lawyers and staff devote more than 100,000 hours to pro bono projects annually. Sidley’s Committee on Pro Bono and Public Interest Law was instrumental in implementing four significant firm-wide initiatives in the last ten years: (1) the Capital Litigation Project, handling death penalty appeals; (2) the Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Project, representing clients in political asylum and other immigration matters; (3) the Veterans Benefits Project, representing veterans in benefits appeals; and (4) the Africa-Asia Agricultural Enterprise Program, serving the world’s poorest farmers and their communities. In addition to these firm-wide projects, Sidley has served pro bono clients in virtually every area of the law, from individual actions to recover disability benefits and child support to national cases affecting voting rights and marriage equality. Another important component of Sidley’s pro bono work is its fellowship program, which allows associates to work at nonprofit organizations before they join the firm. Over the last twelve years, more than 60 incoming Sidley associates have served as DC Bar Pro Bono Fellows at local legal services organizations. Since March 2012, Sidley also has sponsored a loaned associate program with the Legal Aid Society of DC, through which a Sidley associate spends four months working full-time with Legal Aid’s Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project. Over the last year, Sidley has received significant recognition for its pro bono program. Among many other distinctions, it was included among Law360’s Pro Bono Firms of 2014; received the 2014 Exceptional Service Award from the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project; and won the Pro Bono Counsel Award from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Finally, Sidley has provided extensive support directly to Washington Council of Lawyers and our projects. Betsy Howe, a Partner in Sidley’s DC office and chair of Sidley’s Pro Bono Committee in Washington, served as our treasurer in 2012–2013 and our president in 2013–2014. Becky Troth has been an important part of the DC Pro Bono Weekworking group for many years; together, with Mayer Brown’s Marcia Maack, Becky organized the Virtual Pro Bono Fair, a lasting resource for the pro bono community. We are also grateful for the firm’s generosity with use of their space and sponsorships of our events. It is due to the strong support of law firms like Sidley Austin that we have been able to grow, thrive, and better promote pro bono service and public interest law. We are grateful to Sidley Austin and pleased to honor the firm with our 2014 Law Firm Award. You can learn more about Sidley and our other award winners at our 2014 Awards Ceremony.
On May 28, we cosponsored (along with the Constitution Project, the Innocence Project, and Steptoe and Johnson) a panel on the recent exoneration of Sabein Burgess. Burgess spent nearly twenty years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Aleta Spraguehas this report on the panel. At age 24, Sabein Burgess was convicted of murdering his girlfriend at their Baltimore home. His defense attorney called no witnesses during the two-day trial. Burgess was sentenced to life in prison; he remained incarcerated until this year –despite the emergence of contradictory eyewitness testimony and another man’s confession. Eventually, a team of attorneys demonstrated that he was convicted based on faulty forensic evidence. On February 21, 2014, Burgess, now 43, was finally able to return home. The panel featured attorneys from both Steptoe and Johnson and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP), which worked together on behalf of Burgess. The panelists explained how the justice system failed Burgess by providing an ineffective defense attorney and repeatedly disregarding evidence of his innocence after his conviction – particularly the confession of Charles Dorsey, who today is considered the primary suspect. The conviction of Burgess rested almost entirely on questionable gunshot residue evidence – the validity of which wasformally reassessed by the FBI in 2005. Gunshot residue evidence has a high risk of contamination; today, the FBI has stopped using this type of evidence. Parisa Dehghani-Tafti of the Innocence Project explained how gunshot residue evidence and other forensic science tools were created by law enforcement, are subject to confirmation bias, and generally lack scientific rigor. Indeed, according to MAIP, “flawed forensic science testimony has been a factor in more than half of the DNA exonerations nationwide and in more than 20 percent of all exonerations nationwide.” Unfortunately, the Burgess story is not unique. A 2012 study found that more than 2000 individuals had been convicted and then exonerated of serious crimes since 1989. Mere weeks before Burgess’ release, another study found that exonerations in the U.S. have reached a record high—though an increasing number are linked to false confessions induced by plea bargains, rather than DNA evidence. Most disturbingly, a recent analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that nearly one in twenty convictions in capital cases are wrongful – meaning that around 120 of the 3000 individuals on death row are innocent. As one panelist noted, “you have to think twice about the death penalty itself…when a case like this makes its way through the system.” Attorneys who worked on the case urged audience members to find ways to become involved with exoneration work (or with any pro bono cause that speaks to their passions). To learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and identify opportunities to volunteer, click here.
On Wednesday, January 29, we'll be hosting Pro Bono Without Borders, a panel discussion about global pro bono. To preview the event, Renuka Nagaraj interviewed Jessica Ryckman, Special Counsel & Program Manager at Lawyers Without Borders, about doing pro bono work with an international dimension. Here's what Jessica had to say: How did LWOB start, and what was the inspiration for it? Christina Storm, the current director, started LWOB about 15 years ago. At the time, she wanted to volunteer for an international program and she could not find any outlets to do this. This inspired her to start a quality program for lawyers and judges who wanted to do pro bono work abroad. What is the mission of LWOB? LWOB focuses on strengthening the rule of law and increasing access to justice around the world and providing pro bono lawyers the opportunity to work on these projects. How did you personally get involved with LWOB? I was working at a law firm and wanted to work on an international pro bono project. I found a project in Liberia that provided training for attorneys and judges on human trafficking laws. After working on this project in Liberia for about 3 weeks, I was hooked and wanted to do this kind of work full-time. I asked Christina Storm if there were any opportunities and fortuitously, LWOB was looking for someone in DC at that time. What do you do at LWOB? I am a Project Manager and Special Counsel and manage some of LWOB’s Africa programs. For example, I have been working, in conjunction with the US Department of State, on a Liberian human trafficking program, which produces in-person trainings and educational materials. I also work on LWOB’s Kenya initiative, which is creating an independent, Kenyan national-led program and also produces annual trainings there. What are the different kinds of projects that LWOB offers? There is a wide range of programs. LWOB does a lot of trainings for judges, lawyers and law enforcement abroad. We also send participants to observe important court proceedings as a neutral party to report on procedure and fairness at the proceedings. For example, LWOB volunteers observed the Caprivi Strip treason trial in Namibia, the longest and largest trial in this country’s history. Furthermore, LWOB creates graphic novels for countries with low literacy rates, on important topics—such as gender rights, human trafficking, inheritance and succession, and HIV/AIDS. Along the same lines, LWOB makes educational coloring books for children, such as one specific to children in Liberia on the dangers of trafficking. Does LWOB work with attorneys of all experience levels? Yes, LWOB takes volunteers of many experience levels. It works with college students, law students, attorneys, and judges. What advice do you have for those who are thinking of doing global volunteering? Just jump right in! If you are interested in pro bono work abroad, contact organizations that do this work and talk to people who have done it before. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Sometimes, people think that they can’t make the money or time commitment for a pro bono project. However, it’s not as time-consuming or complicated as you may think. So take the next step and start researching how you can start volunteering. What do volunteers like most about working with LWOB? A lot of people say that volunteering for LWOB was a life-changing event. Volunteers also most frequently comment that the LWOB programs are really well-organized and substantive. They had the chance to really get down to the nitty-gritty when working abroad and to work and build relationships with local lawyers and judges. Are you especially proud of any particular LWOB projects? LWOB has been training on a human trafficking in Liberia since 2007. Liberians have had a human trafficking law in place since 2005, and the first prosecution under the law was not until 2013. This case involved a prosecutor and judge that LWOB trained. After talking to them, they credit the training with helping them understand the law and how to hear and prosecute a trafficking case. That is something I’m so proud of, because it shows the impact you can have in other countries. To learn more, register to attend Pro Bono Without Borders – this Wednesday, January 29.
By Aleta Sprague On Thursday we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights. We're previewing each of the panels. Our third installment looks at pro bono opportunities for those who aren't litigators. (Read our first installment on civil rights/civil liberties practice, and our second installment on criminal defense.) For new attorneys, taking on pro bono cases can be a great way to develop litigation skills while simultaneously filling a serious need for legal services within their community. Yet there are also extensive opportunities for transactional lawyers and other non-litigators to do pro bono work. A 2005 survey by the American Bar Association found that the top three areas of practice for pro bono hours are family law, business law, and consumer law. For example, attorneys can help non-profit organizations draft contracts, secure tax-exempt status, and handle real estate transactions. And skills common to business lawyers such as careful listening, problem solving, and negotiating complex bureaucracies have clear applicability to pro bono work. Yet the ABA survey also found that younger lawyers are far less likely than their older counterparts to engage in pro bono activities. This year’s Transactional and Non-Litigation Pro Bono session is designed to inspire new attorneys to take on this type of work and provide some guidance about the wide range of opportunities available to suit a variety of interests and skills. Susan Hoffman, the Public Service Partner at Crowell & Moring, will serve as moderator, and graciously took the time to answer some of my questions in advance. Below is our Q&A: Are there any particular courses, law school activities, or summer experiences you would recommend for law students interested in a non-litigation public interest career? There are clinics at some law schools that involve non-litigation projects that I would recommend. For example, at one law school, there is a consumer clinic that enlists students to assist in negotiating resolutions for clients. How does a new associate become involved with their firm’s pro bono practice? Are there leadership opportunities for junior attorneys? The best way for a new associate to get involved with the firm’s pro bono practice is to seek out and arrange a meeting with the firm’s pro bono coordinator. If the firm does not have a full-time coordinator, find out which attorney chairs the firm’s pro bono committee and express your interest. Taking the initiative will leave a favorable impression on that coordinator/attorney and get results. What skills and qualities enable you to be successful in your position? I think that creativity, patience as well as a willingness to listen closely to clients about their goals and needs has helped me to be successful in my position. What is your favorite thing about your job? What are the key challenges? I find it rewarding and professionally and personally satisfying to think that the work that I do makes a difference--in some cases for an individual and in others for our community as a whole. The biggest challenge that I face is saying “No”--in turning down projects or individuals seeking help--either because they do not qualify for pro bono services or because I don’t have attorneys with time and expertise to help. What can Forum attendees expect to learn during your breakout session? Attendees will learn about ways in which nonlitigation pro bono work can make a significant difference for others and for the community and how it can be just as personally rewarding as litigation pro bono work. Any other tips for law students interested in this practice area? I would recommend being open to trying new types of cases/projects. You never know when you will hit upon a case or project that inspires you! Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.
By Aleta Sprague Our event next week at the Center for American Progress will explore a crucial issue facing the legal community: with legal services in crisis, how can lawyers, advocates, and policymakers ensure access to justice for low-income families? A key driver of the crisis, of course, is inadequate funding. This will come as no surprise to any legal services attorneys reading this post, but the magnitude of the problem is staggering. Over the past three decades, Congress has cut the Legal Service Corporation's budget by about seventy percent. Because LSC provides funding to about 134 legal aid programs--that employ approximately 58% of the attorneys working to provide legal aid–these organizations are scaling back. Indeed, a recent survey revealed that LSC-funded organizations anticipated laying off 13.3% of their attorneys between 2010 and 2012, along with 15.4% of their paralegals and 12.7% of their support staff. For every attorney who is let go, between two and three hundred fewer clients will be served. And with the proportion of eligible legal aid clients accessing services already below 20%, any further cuts would be devastating. At the same time, due to the recession, the need for legal services has never been greater—particularly for those facing debt and foreclosure. In 2008, LSC organizations handled 31,653 bankruptcy and debt relief cases; this number rose to 39,346 cases in 2010. Foreclosures reflect a similar trend; in New York, foreclosure cases rose by 683% between 2007 and 2011, and the cases “sit in the system” for an average of two and a half years. Legal aid lawyers assist clients in foreclosure through loan modifications, mediation, and providing representation in foreclosure proceedings. These attorneys also were among the first to identify the “robo-signing” scandal in 2010. Still, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice revealed that the vast majority of families facing foreclosure in most states are not represented by counsel. In New Jersey, for example, 92.9% of the defendants in foreclosure cases in 2010 had no attorneys on record. The practical impacts of these trends can be devastating. As the report documented, unrepresented parties in foreclosure proceedings often fail to present key pieces of evidence that could make a difference between staying in their homes or being out on the street. According to testimony from Martin Mack, the Executive Deputy Attorney General of New York, “[T]he lack of individual representation in foreclosure actions is one reason we have seen systemic abuses of the legal system by lenders and debt collectors.” These types of hurdles extend beyond foreclosure cases. Litigants trying to access or reinstate their public benefits, secure a protection order, or file a discrimination claim will also encounter a range of unfamiliar processes, rules, and language that put them at a distinct disadvantage in court. So that’s the bad news. Now what do we do about it? What’s the role of the pro bono community? Barring universal representation, how can we best serve the needs of unrepresented litigants? We’ll start answering these questions in our post on Monday, and be sure to attend the event on Tuesday as we explore some ideas, strategies, and solutions.