‘No guarantee of a lawyer’: Pro bono lawyers in DC provide legal help in times of need

There are many situations in which a person needs a lawyer — even if they can’t afford one.

And while criminal defendants are guaranteed representation by a public defender, that’s not the case in civil court.

“There is no guarantee of a lawyer” in civil court, said Jodi Feldman, pro bono manager for D.C. Courts. “Pro bono means when lawyers provide representation free of charge, usually to people who are of low or moderate means, and are unable to afford counsel — they can also provide legal service to organizations that serve that same population.”

Public defender services only practice in criminal court, and according to federal law, a defendant in criminal court who cannot afford a lawyer is appointed one by the state.

Feldman said there are many cases in which someone needs a lawyer, but can’t afford one.

“We’re talking about eviction court, family court, people who are in debt collection court,” Feldman said. “We need help representing both petitioners and the respondent in civil protection order cases, and housing conditions cases and mortgage foreclosure cases.”

Asked why lawyers would give away their services for free?

“There’s a professional obligation. It’s a privilege to practice law, and it comes with obligations, as all privileges do,” Feldman said. “In our professional ethics rules in D.C., it actually directs lawyers to provide pro bono service.”

D.C. Courts recently published its 2023 Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll, listing lawyers who performed 50 hours of pro bono work. Lawyers who did 100 hours achieved high honors.

In addition to meeting their professional obligations, Feldman said lawyers also benefit from their pro bono work.

“Lawyers get a lot of professional development experience, and it’s a wonderful way to give back to their community and feel connected to our community here in D.C., where the lawyers live and work and earn their living,” Feldman said.

Some pro bono cases can be handled within the 50-hour requirement, while others require a longer commitment.

“We encourage lawyers to choose a case based on something that they’re interested in doing, and that’s going to give them the experiences that they’re looking for, in addition to helping their clients,” Feldman said.

In a joint statement, Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby of the D.C. Court of Appeals and Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring of the D.C. Superior Court said the attorneys on the honor roll fill an important need.

“The continued participation of pro bono counsel is simply indispensable to our civil justice system,” said the chief judges. “It will take all of us, working together, to make the equal access to justice a reality in the District.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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