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Walk-in legal clinics are famously unpredictable. Still, things were buzzing when a certain very public figure dropped by the Washington, D.C. Bar’s monthly Advice and Referral Clinic at the Whitman-Walker AIDS Clinic in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood on Saturday, Jan. 13. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno spent an hour of her last Saturday in office at the clinic, handling intake in one case, speaking with other volunteers, and posing for photos. “It’s important for the law to be accessible to all people,” she told volunteer lawyers at the clinic. “I think you are absolutely magnificent.” It was Reno’s first visit to the clinic, which has become the adoptive site of sorts for the Department of Justice’s pro bono program, an informal initiative Reno started in 1996. Every three months or so for the past year — though sometimes more frequently — Justice attorneys have helped staff the three-hour monthly clinic with public interest lawyers and others from private practice and government agencies. In addition, the department’s Antitrust Division regularly staffs the bar’s other, much older clinic at Bread for the City & Zacchaeus Free Clinic in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. While Reno’s visit was unexpected until a few days prior to the announcement, it was not surprising given her strong views on volunteerism, says Maureen Syracuse, who directs the bar’s pro bono efforts. “She has always wanted to play an active role in the pro bono volunteer program for her agency,” says Syracuse. “I think she wanted to leave a legacy for the lawyers in the agency to show that she’s really with them, not just in spirit but in actual work.” Reno arrived late in the morning and was led on a tour by volunteers of the Max Robinson Center. She then proceeded upstairs to address lawyers who were awaiting assignments. “You’re making the law come true for so many individuals,” she told the group of about 15 or so attorneys. She stressed the importance of using problem-solving skills — which the bar is keen on emphasizing at these clinics — in addition to legal know-how to help the poor and disadvantaged. “People concentrate on the litigation side,” she said, “but don’t forget the problem-solving side.” She then screened a client in a private conference. The man, who appeared to be in his 50s, was seeking to have his name reinstated on a lease that he said had been doctored by a cousin. While Justice Department lawyers are free to perform pro bono work as long as there is no risk that a claim could be lodged against the government, Reno opted to handle only intake, a task usually reserved for legal assistants. She referred the man to an attorney who was present that morning. Reno’s visit was, obviously, a largely symbolic event. But as AG, she made pro bono one of her lasting legacies at the Justice Department. D.C. Bar Pro Bono Committee Chair Robert Weiner of Arnold & Porter said that under Reno the department was “evangelical” in drumming up support for pro bono, both within its own ranks and in other government agencies. For example, The National Labor Relations Board sends a team of attorneys every ten months to take on cases at the bar’s Law Firm Pro Bono Clinic. In addition, attorneys from all areas and agencies of the government are volunteering their time individually. “She’s a great role model for government lawyers,” says Syracuse. “Not only has she put the policy in place, but she’s led by example.” Syracuse hopes “it will be something that catches on and becomes a tradition,” among future attorneys general. She predicts the program will stay strong, even after Reno. Weiner agrees. Pro bono, he says, is “not a partisan issue, it’s about a personal initiative.” As for her future in the public interest, Reno was decidedly vague. She told volunteers she envisions herself in a university setting that combines legal matters with a concentration on public health.

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