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D.C.’s proud pro bono tradition falls on hard times.

It’s tax time once again, and 59-year-old Mabel Butler is baffled, and a bit scared, by a form she’s received. Already suffering from asthma, the Southeast D.C. resident had a stroke last year. When Butler’s physical ailments put her behind in her mortgage payments, she had been forced to leave her North Carolina home and move in with her son. Butler suspects that the mortgage company has erred in its claim that she owes taxes on a house where she hasn’t lived for more than a year, but she’s not sure. So she’s come to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s monthly advice and referral clinic to find free legal help.

Butler is one of the lucky ones: She’s managed to find her way to assistance. Willie Cook, who has served as executive director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) for the past 26 years, points out that the 100,000 District residents below the poverty line are served by just 37 civil legal-service providers.

“If you take all of our resources put together,” says Cook, “we are not able to handle 10 percent of the need.”

Since 1908, a license to practice law in the United States has been loosely tied to the notion that lawyers are ethically bound to represent indigent clients like Butler. Yet in 1993, a landmark study by the American Bar Association (ABA) concluded that 70 percent of the legal needs of the poor were unmet. That same year, the ABA quantified and tightened its previously vague pro bono rule by explicitly recommending that lawyers should spend 50 or more hours per year on low-income clients.

Five years later, the Judicial Conferences of the District of Columbia and the D.C. Circuit Court updated the D.C. Bar’s pro bono goal to reflect the ABA’s recommended standard. They also adopted a higher financial target for lawyers who could not meet the 50 hours per year goal, unanimously resolving that local lawyers should contribute at least $400, or 1 percent of their income, to organizations serving economically disadvantaged residents if they don’t meet the time standard for pro bono work.

The D.C. pro bono goals are merely a guide, enforceable only as a matter of conscience. Yet many local lawyers are repudiating even this modest challenge. The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, for example, sends an annual direct-mail appeal to 25,000 District lawyers. Usually, only about 300 lawyers or firms respond. The average contribution is approximately $100. Sometimes, it’s much less.

“Some people send back a penny,” observes Legal Aid Executive Director Joseph Zengerle. “Some people send back dirty jokes. We’ve gotten obscene material in our business-reply envelopes.” To add further insult, Legal Aid has to pay the postman for each envelope returned in that manner.

“If you get [lawyers] to pay 1 percent of their income or $400, that’d be huge,” Zengerle adds. He believes that “part of the problem is there’s no one to enforce [that] standard.”

As it stands, the jury’s still out on whether Legal Aid will meet its $1 million annual benchmark this year. The organization, which provides counsel for family, housing, public benefits, and landlord-tenant matters, typically raises funds from lawyers and law firms through its direct-mail appeal, a fundraising dinner, and an associates campaign. With just three months left in the fiscal year, revenue is lagging $75,000 behind last year’s.

“I’ve been busting my buns for the last two weeks on the phone every day calling law firms, calling individuals, calling grant makers,” observes Zengerle. “Everything is down this year.”

It’s not only Legal Aid that’s getting the cold shoulder. Last June, the D.C. Circuit’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services observed that out of 142 local law firms it had surveyed, fewer than 25 percent reported that they had donated the suggested minimum hours in 1999. Despite follow-up letters and calls to managing partners, fewer than half of the firms responded to the survey. Of the 68 that did reply, some skipped pertinent questions about their pro bono practices.

In July 2000, the American Lawyer published its own survey of America’s 100 top law firms. The magazine found that those firms’ lawyers averaged about 36 pro bono hours each in 1999, compared with 56 hours a year in 1992. Though three District-based firms (Covington & Burling; Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering; Arnold & Porter) ranked in the top five pro bono sources nationally, the magazine noted that those firms’ pro bono commitments had not increased over the past seven years.

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There are 73,000 lawyers licensed to practice in the District of Columbia. The D.C. Bar ranks second only to California’s in size. Individual and firm listings consume almost 100 pages of the phone book—more than doctors, restaurants, and churches combined.

For decades, the D.C. Bar has had a reputation as the national flagship for pro bono work. Its members have been lauded for

representing the poor in controversial cases. District firms have sacrificed senior associates to do cutting-edge work on behalf of the downtrodden.

Yet those efforts still fall short of the need.

“D.C. is probably at the top when you compare it to other places,” says NLSP’s Cook. “But what the hell does that mean? Nothing. You have to measure the level of services based upon the need and based upon the population.”

D.C.’s Legal Aid—the largest civil legal-service organization in the city—fields 10,000 calls a year. It sees 2,000 walk-in clients and represents 500 people. Numerous D.C. residents also qualify for representation at the city’s other free legal-service nonprofits, but many of those providers specialize in a particular population or legal niche. There are at present only a handful of

year-round, full-service legal-aid organizations in the city.

The federally funded NLSP provides the broadest service, covering 13 areas of poverty law, but the program is still reeling from a 1996 funding cut that gouged its former $1.6 million budget by 55 percent. When those cuts were enacted, then-D.C. Bar President Robert Weiner created a partnership with chief judges of federal and local courts and managing partners of the District’s 75 largest firms to solve the acute legal crisis facing the city’s poor.

In the short term, it worked. More lawyers and law firms signed up for pro bono programs, and donations to NLSP doubled. Even with substantial private-sector support, however, the effects of those cuts are still being felt. NLSP still turns nine out of 10 people away, according to Cook. The program’s lawyers make only $30,000 a year—the market norm for poverty lawyers in the District—and they’ve had no salary increase in six years. NLSP has halved its staff since those 1996 cuts, and it has left seven positions vacant to stay in the black.

Pro bono work is a significant voluntary gesture by the legal community, but Cook believes that mandatory cash targets need to be established to sustain and strengthen

the District’s provision of legal services to the poor.

“People who do pro bono work, they do it at their leisure,” says Cook. “And I don’t mean to downplay that, but they’re not specialists in it, and it makes a big difference. Which is better for you—to have a tax lawyer who specializes in doing divorces every now and then or to have a person who specializes in divorce 100 percent of [the] time?”

The Law Students in Court program, the District’s largest provider of legal aid for low-income residents with landlord-tenant problems, also faces an uncertain future. Founded in 1969, the program annually attracts 7,000 residents and litigates about 300 cases. Its funding, derived mostly from law schools, has slowed. If the program doesn’t increase its revenue this fiscal year, its leaders expect a shortfall of $90,000. Ann Marie Hay, executive director of Law Students in Court, says that significant deficit could require a scaling down of the program or its outright closure.

“I think there’s been a change in the country,” observes Hay. “Gradually, it’s become more conservative in terms of pro bono commitment and what people are willing to do for poor people.”

Local lawyers point to any number of reasons for the shortage of pro bono volunteers and monetary support for legal-aid programs.

One factor may be D.C.’s changing legal culture. The District has traditionally boasted a preponderance of litigators and public-policy lawyers whose strengths play to pro bono cases. Some argue that the District’s rising tide of corporate lawyers—who are less readily adaptable to pro bono work—has had an impact.

Economic factors are even more important. Huge salary hikes for entry-level lawyers nationwide have led firms to compensate by pressuring young associates to log more “billable hours” (time spent working for paying clients). New associates at large firms, fueled by idealism and their need for court experience, have long been the bread and butter of free civil legal services. Now they are increasingly crunched by oppressive student loans, bullying to bill, and—to judge from Web sites like www.greedyassociates.com—a bit of self-indulgence, as well.

“There’s plenty of reason to believe that [market forces have had a depressing effect on pro bono here] in some measure or another,” says D.C. Bar President John Nields. “Whether it’s a little or a lot, people have debated about it….It’s been harder to get young lawyers to come to the [legal] clinics and staff the cases.”

Nields has made assessing the District’s pro bono climate a high priority of his one-year term. Six months ago, he started the Pro Bono Initiative Working Group, which was designed to measure the effects of the salary wars and other pressures that affect pro bono work. The 18-person task force has been interviewing managing partners and associates to assess the damage to pro bono in the District. Nields promises to make the committee’s findings public in the near future, but he declines to speculate about what recommendations it might issue.

“Even among the working poor or people doing a little bit better than minimum wage, how many people can afford a lawyer for their legal problems?” asks Zengerle. “Damn few….It’s a principle of justice that they should not have the door to the courthouse locked to them because they don’t have money.” CP