The Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis, an international law firm with 200 attorneys in the District, is pairing with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and Friendship Baptist Church to offer free legal services from the church’s building in Southwest Washington.
The clinic, which opened last week, is the first of its kind for the law firm, the legal services provider and the church. And it comes at a time when many law firms and businesses in the Washington area are experimenting with new pro bono models that bring more structure and organization to volunteer work done by attorneys.
It is also the first time that Kirkland, which is donating $125,000 a year for at least five years, is making a multi-year financial pledge to a pro bono project of this scale. Most of the money will go toward paying Legal Aid attorneys to handle work that comes into the clinic, said Kirkland attorney Jennifer Levy, who coordinates pro bono efforts for the Washington office. For Legal Aid, which has about 35 lawyers in the District, it is the first time the legal services provider will offer free legal services in Southwest D.C.
“This type of partnership with a church is new to us,” said Eric Angel, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of D.C. “For us, the expansion into Southwest D.C. is new. And the scope of the collaboration and financial support and long-term commitment from Kirkland & Ellis is path-breaking and exciting for us. The combination of those three things make this very appealing for us, and certainly new.”
The partnership expands on a relationship that began between Kirkland and Friendship Baptist Church in 2010. The church’s pastor, Rev. J. Michael Little, a Georgetown Law graduate, approached Kirkland attorneys through one of his parishioners, Lorna Barringer, a secretary at the firm.
Little saw firsthand the need for free legal services in Southwest, and worked with Levy and Kirkland lawyer Tom Gottschalk to form Jeremiah Circle of Friends, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Southwest that provides food, clothing, job training, youth programs and free legal services on issues surrounding housing and eviction, disability benefits, foreclosure scams, custody, divorce and child support.
The legal work was done mostly by Kirkland attorneys on a pro bono basis. As part of this new partnership, the legal services component of Jeremiah Circle of Friends will be run by Legal Aid, which Levy said will bring institutional knowledge about how to handle some civil legal services.
“As we got bigger and better and started serving more people, we realized there is truly a need for high-quality free legal services in this quadrant,” Levy said. “Legal Aid has a more established intake of cases, they have expertise [in some areas of law] where we didn’t. We asked them to partner with us and take our home-grown grass roots legal clinic and make it a real legal site with their expertise and organizational structure.”
Kirkland joins a small group of law firms that are testing new models for pro bono work in Washington. Last fall, the D.C. office of Skadden Arps began partnering with Northrop Grumman, LivingSocial and Cisco Systems and three local legal aid groups — Children’s Law Center, Legal Aid Society of D.C. and Bread for the City — to form a joint program designed to better train law firm and in-house attorneys in legal issues arising from domestic violence, guardianship and housing.
And in December, WilmerHale, one of the District’s largest law firms, inked a contract with Bread for the City to donate a set amount of money to the legal services provider over the next three years.
“Pro bono is very important to the firm, but it’s also good business to do it,” Levy said. “This project has brought people together toward a common goal and it’s given our younger attorneys experience in trials, mediations, investigations and dealing with clients.”