Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Peter Njang practices employment law from a struggling solo office in Northwest Washington, D.C. Margaret McKinney is a name partner at Bouquet & McKinney, a small and successful family law practice in upscale Bethesda, Md. In the world of lawyers that live and practice in the D.C. area, Njang and McKinney would likely never meet. But one day in December, they were working shoulder to shoulder in Anacostia, a community in Washington, D.C., with attorneys from all walks of life — from Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben to private practitioners and paralegals. On most days, the building where they gathered — a two-story former police station on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Chicago Street — is known as the Max Robinson Center, Whitman-Walker AIDS clinic. For three hours on the second Saturday morning of each month, it offers a different type of community service: free legal advice. Most people in the neighborhood have never heard of the legal services center. After all, the D.C. Bar Advice & Referral Clinic has been coming here for only a year. Aside from scattered fliers posted around the community and a giant banner that’s slung across the gate in front of the clinic, it receives very little promotion. That’s the problem when you’re open for only three hours a month. But neighbors who have come seeking help know it’s the one time and place that anyone can walk in and be guaranteed an audience. Unlike other legal aid clinics in the metro area, clients aren’t screened based on their income. The relatively well-to-do are as welcome as the poorest of the poor. In fact, clients don’t even need a legal problem to receive help. Everyone gets a chance to talk. It’s one of the only rules. Many of the stories are compelling, to be sure. But the majority of problems that people bring in are commonplace and even banal, issues that from a legal standpoint are easily resolved. They include landlord-tenant disputes, wrongful firings, personal injury claims, custody disputes, and problems with debt. Many clients just come looking for a shoulder to lean on. In the majority of matters, all it takes is a well-placed phone call from an attorney or a stern letter on firm stationery to get a delinquent landlord to shape up or to keep a creditor at bay. Other, more serious cases are referred to specialized clinics, or to practitioners with expertise in complex fields such as immigration law. For years, the D.C. Bar has run a similar, though much larger program at the Bread for the City & Zacchaeus Free Clinic. It’s the busier of the two clinics, with more than twice the volume, because it’s had time to build a reputation in the neighborhood. On any given Saturday, the Anacostia clinic will serve 25 clients to Zacchaeus’ 60. The quiet commitment of the lawyers who assemble at the Anacostia clinic is a reminder of the tenuous business of legal aid operations that depend on volunteer lawyers. And at a time when pro bono warriors fear that public service is slipping at some D.C. law firms, the clinic illustrates how volunteer lawyers can make a difference. GAME DAY Among the 25 attorneys who have shown up, the number is split almost evenly between males and females. Minorities account for about one-third of the attorneys on call. Most are newcomers to the clinic. They sit perched, some nervously, on the edges of leather couches in the overheated and bare upstairs conference room. Some of the attorneys sip coffee or orange juice, or nibble on a muffin. Others walk around introducing themselves. Their reasons for coming are as varied as their backgrounds. A former public defender in West Palm Beach, Fla., Adrian Barrett, now an aviation lawyer at Dombroff & Gilmore in Washington, says he misses interacting with people. Lilah Blackstone of the D.C. Department of Insurance and Securities Regulation says that at her job she has to play the role of the bad guy. Other attorneys, no doubt, are here to fulfill bar requirements. The room is lit by sunlight, but it’s lifeless except for a Christmas tree — live and strung with lights, red ribbon, and candy canes — that is pushed up against a wall. At 10 a.m., the action begins. Maureen Syracuse, the director of the bar’s Pro Bono Program and the coordinator of both clinics, walks through a quick introduction to problems the lawyers can expect to come across, including what to do if a client appears to be mentally ill. Don’t feel like you have to find a legal problem either, she tells the lawyers. Because more attorneys than expected have shown up, each client will be assigned two attorneys — something that would never happen at the busier Zacchaeus Clinic. Clients who have legitimate legal grievances should be referred to the applicable section of the bar, or to another pre-approved legal aid provider. McKinney is asked to serve as an adviser to the lawyers in the event a family law problem arises. Toward the end of the morning, though, she meets with one client on her own: a man who wants his divorce hearing moved to the District from Prince George’s County, Md. Local politics is preventing him from getting a fair hearing, he says. From a legal standpoint, there isn’t much she can do. Still, she advises him to find a lawyer in Maryland and gives him some phone numbers to call. Meanwhile, downstairs, paralegals and other intake volunteers screen clients who are questioned on a first-come, first-served basis. Before their interview, they fill out a personal information form. Then they sit and wait. Inside the waiting room, where light streams in through two large, barred windows, it’s warm and stuffy. A TV set is mounted to a wall at an angle, hospital-style, and plastic chairs are set in a horseshoe pattern around the room. A game show is on, but no one appears to be interested. One man in his mid-40s wears a bright yellow jacket and sits patiently with his back to the window. Two others also wait in this room, and a family of three sits just outside, in the entrance area. Near the television, posters hang bearing titles such as “Stand Tough: Get Tested for HIV” and “Transgenders at Risk.” The affluent core of Northwest Washington, D.C., is just a few miles away, but the two neighborhoods are worlds apart in almost every other respect. TROUBLE-SHOOTING In fact, most of the lawyers present know little about the community. Legal training is what really counts. What the lawyers lack in poverty law know-how, they make up for in their ability to find solutions to problems, however complicated. Njang, who is paired with another attorney, listens to a woman who says she has a court date for allegedly causing a traffic accident. She admits to having gotten into a minor fender-bender once, but the summons she received is for an accident that occurred at a different time and place. Njang and his partner tell the woman to honor the court date. It’s a case of mistaken identity, they tell her, and they refer her back to the D.C. Bar, which will put her in touch with a legal aid lawyer to take the case. Then, two attorneys with little employment law experience are asked to advise an apartment handyman who claims to have been wrongfully fired because a fellow employee spread untrue rumors about him to the building’s landlord. Njang, an employment specialist, is called in to help. He tells the man he might have a case, and refers him to the D.C. Bar’s employment section. Just in case, Njang slips him his own office number. Later in the morning, two lawyers shepherd a powerfully built woman who looks to be in her mid-50s to a small room in the basement of the building. It’s the only room that isn’t being used. She wants custody of six children born to a relative who, she says, is hopelessly addicted to crack. She is the only family member willing to help anymore, she says, and she figures the best way to do it is to take the kids away, give them a stable home, and get them back in school, full time. “It needs to cease. I’m not going to have her dragging her kids from pillar to post. These children don’t deserve to have this happen to them,” she says to the lawyers after the meeting. They refer her to a private attorney, who is now handling the case. “I’m going to do what I have to do,” she says before leaving. “I may not win, but at least I’m fighting.” For Heather Pearlman and Patricia First, the two attorneys who advised the woman, this scene is a dramatic departure from the Washington where they work, live, and socialize. Both are lawyers at the Department of Justice. First says it’s easy to lose sight of the problems that many low-income residents of the District must confront and that dealing with clients face-to-face allows her to use different skills. And there are other benefits to getting out of DOJ headquarters. Jokes Pearlman: “The level of maturity is much higher here.” ‘BREATHTAKING AND OBSCENE’ Justice lawyers like First and Pearlman or even former Attorney General Janet Reno, who appeared at the clinic a month later, have to be especially vigilant about what type of pro bono work they accept. All legal aid work must be done on private time and in the lawyers’ private capacity. Lawyers are barred from handling any case that could result in litigation against the government. Jessica Rosenbaum comes here every time the Justice Department comes, which is about every three months, to make sure no one crosses that line. She is a DOJ attorney and a former legal aid lawyer who now doubles as the department’s pro bono manager. It’s an informal program, says Rosenbaum. Still, she tries to coordinate it so that DOJ divisions take turns staffing the clinic. On this day, it’s the turn of the Office of Legislative Affairs. Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben, who has since left the post, handled several matters including a contested divorce and a wrongful death claim, and says no pro bono effort is too great. “The need speaks for itself,” says Raben during a break. “The gap between legal services for the wealthy and for the poor is breathtaking and obscene, and few of us do enough to bridge that gap.” He says coming here is a “palpable reminder” of that. The man with the yellow jacket has moved to a cramped upstairs office near the lounge where the attorneys wait. He is a postal carrier, he says, and takes home an annual salary of around $40,000. Still, he has creditors. One in particular has taken to harassing him at work for nonpayment. This is one of the quick cases, one that requires more sound advice than legal know-how. Lilah Blackstone and Glenn Greene, an associate at D.C.’s Spriggs & Hollingsworth, offer to write the creditor a letter demanding a stop to the harassment. He and Blackstone also suggest a debt consolidation plan that could reduce the man’s payments and make it easier for him to pay his bills on time. This man is in a tricky situation — he can’t afford to hire a private attorney but makes too much money to qualify for traditional legal aid services. Peter Njang knows something about being stuck in the middle. He’s attempting to practice pro bono full time once he gets his fledgling Africa Legal and Civil Rights Center, dedicated to helping recent immigrants from Africa, off the ground. He is the group’s founder, director, and for now, its sole employee. But he doesn’t have the funds yet, and so far no one has come forward with a checkbook. He still has to charge his clients — not much, but whatever they can afford. If they have nothing, then he’ll take the case for free. No one gets turned away. It’s one of his only rules. His business card reads “Our Brother’s Keeper.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.