Imagine a 60-year-old widow who’s been living in the same two-bedroom apartment in Anacostia for decades. It was the first apartment she shared with her late husband; she raised two kids there, hosted countless friends and relatives, celebrated her granddaughter’s first birthday party. It’s her home.
Now, after all those years, for reasons she doesn’t understand, she faces eviction.
In hopes of remaining in her longtime home, she goes to court. She can’t afford a lawyer, and so she joins the 97 percent of defendants in the District who appear without a lawyer in the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court. And she has just enough income to disqualify her from free legal aid. Her landlord, or more likely, his lawyer, shows up with basic documentation. She doesn’t ask — because she doesn’t know to ask — whether her notice to vacate was properly served or whether the grounds for eviction are legal and given in good faith. She is evicted.
This happens almost every day in the District. Lower-income residents who don’t qualify for free legal aid but can’t afford lawyers suffer devastating consequences in court. And yet even as they fall, unrepresented, through the cracks, we keep hearing about a glut of unemployed lawyers, many of them recent law-school graduates.
It would be nice if it were as simple as matching up all the unemployed lawyers with all the people who need affordable legal advice. But, in the absence of new initiatives, the match won’t happen. New graduates lack the experience they need to handle important cases effectively. They need office space, phones, copiers and library resources that a new lawyer working alone can’t afford.
One idea gaining momentum: “low-bono” legal services, where lawyers charge affordable fees to work for those who can’t afford the District’s average rate of $250 per hour but who make a little too much to qualify for legal aid. While pro-bono work is offered for free, the low-bono models provide adequate financial support for attorneys.
More than 15 law schools provide recent graduates with hands-on training by offering affordable legal services.
Yet the incubator model, which is making a difference, has limits. Because of resource constraints, the new lawyers often receive limited training, supervision and support. This is where big commercial law firms can come in. There are signs that Big Law is coming around to low-bono, recognizing a critical need to make legal services affordable to working people.
In the District, a new organization called the D.C. Affordable Law Firm (DCALF) is helping big firms commit to low-bono to great effect by bringing in new law graduates.
It works like this: For each of the next three years, we at Georgetown Law will send six graduates into 15-month fellowships at DCALF. The law firm Arent Fox will provide technological support and space in its K Street offices, while DLA Piper, the world’s third-largest law firm, will take the lead role in training and creating DCALF’s policies and procedures. Lawyers from both firms will do the important work of serving as mentors for the young graduates who will gain valuable experience and invaluable supervision and training from veteran colleagues.
DCALF presents a replicable economic model that rewards doing what’s right. The hope is that it will inspire law firms and law schools across the country to launch their own low-bono firms organized like DCALF. If the model catches on, more and more talented young lawyers will devote an early stage of their career to communities in need. They will get great hands-on experiences as they start their careers — the legal equivalent of a medical residency. And they will make a difference, especially for the thousands of lower- and lower-middle-income Americans who face a staggering injustice any time they enter our courts.
William M. Treanor is executive vice president and dean of Georgetown Law School. Jane H. Aiken is vice dean and associate dean for experiential education at Georgetown Law School.