Expanding access to legal services for underserved communities is a constant dialogue in the legal arena and a pressing issue for those who lack such access. Many factors impact access to legal services, such as funding, income, attorney participation, awareness and geography. For attorneys seeking to do pro bono work in their communities, thinking first about geography – the specific legal services needs of an attorney’s community – may be the most important starting point. This article features the capital city of Washington, DC as an example of how geography can play a role in the provision of legal services. Washington, DC is home to many federal agencies, non-profit organizations and bar associations that host attorney training sessions, provide forums for volunteer legal services and offer numerous networking events. Participation and attendance at these events increases awareness about the need for legal services, and also encourages attorneys to participate in providing legal services to those in need. As a general matter, new attorneys should consider three factors when providing legal services in their respective cities: (a) give serious thought to groups in your community who need legal services, (b) determine what skills you have that would be most helpful for a particular group, and (c) search for resources that are available to attorneys. Here is an example of how one might apply those factors in the nation’s capital:
- The need for legal services: The city (and its surrounding areas) is the residence for many veterans due to federal government employment opportunities. Many non-profit organizations and services exist to cater to the needs of active and former military personnel. As a result, this is an avenue that many new or young attorneys can take advantage of to assist veterans with obtaining disability benefits, healthcare, housing, etc. In addition, the Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA) ensures that financial obligations do not become a concern for men and women in active duty military service which distract them from their ability to serve. Attorneys can assist military members to advocate for their rights under the SCRA.
- How to put skills to use: There are many attorneys employed by government agencies in Washington, DC and these attorneys may have an advantage when seeking to provide pro bono work because they possess specific agency knowledge, which is usually in demand. This applies in the area of veteran’s benefits but also in other types of legal services. For example, an employee of the Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) would be excellent to host trainings to new attorneys or offer pro bono work on housing discrimination. Such knowledge is typically always in demand and employees of these agencies can provide training. The National Fair Housing Alliance, Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and the Equal Rights Center accepts volunteers to assist with enforcing fair housing laws. As a caveat, employees of federal agencies should be cognizant to avoid conflicts of interest that may arise when providing legal services. For example, an employee of the Social Security Administration should not assist a client with appealing a denied benefit claim against that agency.
- Resources available: The District of Columbia has numerous voluntary bar associations, which in turn encourages its members to participate in pro bono programs all over the district. The following site below provides a list of the countless bar associations with contact information: www.dcbar.org/for_lawyers/resources/voluntarybars.cfm. On veterans’ issues, the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono program gladly invites volunteer attorneys for enrollment in their volunteer program. Also, it is always a good idea to become involved with other attorneys in your local area because awareness through information sharing is key in expanding access to legal services:
As these examples show, geographic locality can be used to direct the type of pro bono work that is performed by attorneys. By taking a step back and thinking about the specific legal service needs of one’s community, attorneys may be able to direct their pro bono work in the most effective way possible. New attorneys should use the three-step process suggested above to accomplish this goal. Indeed, working through these three preliminary factors will allow attorneys to be effective pro bono advocates, which are a necessity in every community.