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August 19, 2016 Dialogue

Transforming Lives Through Pro Bono

By Monika Kalra Varma

The District of Columbia has one of the highest poverty rates in the United States, with one of every three children living in poverty and unemployment rates as high as 14% in some neighborhoods. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center serves our community by providing pro bono legal services to individuals, nonprofits, and small businesses. We are the largest pro bono legal services in the District, touching nearly 20,000 lives and organizations each year. I am often asked how the Pro Bono Center, an organization that provides legal assistance through volunteers, is able to serve this many people. There are key ways we leverage a small staff of 19 to mobilize and train nearly 2,000 volunteers to serve our community—we fill gaps, create opportunities, and continue to evolve.

Filling Gaps

Washington, D.C. has an expansive and collaborative legal services provider community, a judiciary that prioritizes access to justice, and a legal community that believes in pro bono service. The Pro Bono Center does not try to tackle every challenge; we focus on those that we are uniquely positioned to address. We collaborate with other legal services and nonprofits to identify the greatest needs in our community[1] and then partner to best leverage our collective resources and impact. We also work closely with our courts and private bar to best address access to justice gaps.

For example, over a decade ago we launched the Landlord Tenant Resource Center at D.C. Superior Court to provide unrepresented individuals with legal information, resources, and referrals. The Pro Bono Center operates the resource center every weekday and serves a critical role each year by serving thousands of tenants facing eminent eviction or unsafe, unhealthy, or illegal housing conditions. The resource center is staffed by pro bono attorneys from local law firms that commit to serving on a regular basis and our managing attorneys are on site every day to run the center and support our volunteers. This is often the first point of entry for individuals to access legal assistance, where they have the opportunity to meet with a lawyer steps away from the courtroom where their cases will be heard. We also partner with Bread for the City and Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia to maximize the resource center’s impact by referring individuals who need same-day representation to their Landlord Tenant Court-Based Legal Services Project. We also refer people to our own full representation clinic. In the last twelve years, the Landlord Tenant Resource Center—one of three resource centers we operate—has served over 54,000 customers.

The Pro Bono Center is the only organization in our area dedicated to serving the legal needs of community-based nonprofit organizations and small businesses[2]. We provide direct support to organizations and also examine larger systemic challenges facing our nonprofit and small business communities.

In June, we launched a new initiative examining the impact of gentrification on nonprofits, working with organizations across our city. The changing demographics in the District present unique challenges to nonprofits. A few nonprofits own buildings that have appreciated at exponential rates and are selling their assets to support their work, while many more can no longer afford their exorbitant leases. The question that is driving our work is this:  What happens to our city if the nonprofits who provide food, shelter, healthcare, and many other services can no longer afford to stay in the neighborhoods where their services are most needed? Through this initiative we are bringing together bar members, nonprofit technical service providers, and other professionals to support nonprofits as they begin analyzing how to deal with the impact of gentrification on their organizations.

Identifying and serving the greatest needs in our community drives everything we do. It also ensures that our volunteers, who are dedicating their time and resources, are having the greatest impact possible in their own community.

Creating Opportunities

To address our clients’ needs, the Pro Bono Center provides a continuum of services including pro se support, brief advice, referrals, and full representation. For our pro bono volunteers, this means that—whether they are litigators or transactional attorneys, have a few hours on a Saturday morning, want to take on a case or work with a nonprofit on a complex matter—they can find a pro bono opportunity through the Pro Bono Center. Our services include:

Brief Advice

Volunteer lawyers provide brief legal services in the neighborhoods where our clients live and work. In just one short meeting, an elderly couple considering bankruptcy, a father seeking custody of his child, or a worker denied unemployment benefits can consult a volunteer lawyer for legal advice and/or referral to help solve their legal problem. We also have a wide range of nonprofit clinics that attract transactional attorneys and in-house counsel. Attorneys meet one-on-one with nonprofit leaders to help them address intellectual property issues, update bylaws, and ensure their policies are in order. Complex issues require full representation; however, sometimes people and organizations only need brief advice or information to address their legal issue.

Pro Se

The Pro Bono Center currently helps more individuals represent themselves than any other District legal services provider. In addition to our Landlord Tenant Resource Center as referenced above, we created the Probate, Tax Sale, and Consumer Law Resource Centers—each just steps away from the courtroom where our customers’ cases will be heard.

Our brief advice and pro se services are time-limited pro bono opportunities that attract new and longer term volunteers. Some attorneys love the ability to impact a number of clients or customers in a short period of time, and for others it is their entry point into the pro bono world and they go on to take on full representation cases and matters.

Full Representation

The Pro Bono Center assists hundreds of individuals and families each year who are facing eviction, the loss of their homes, or are seeking to secure public benefits. For more than 20 years, we have recruited pro bono lawyers to accept cases in family, housing, public benefits, consumer, and personal injury defense matters. We have also matched pro bono volunteers with nonprofits to represent them with legal challenges ranging from employment issues to efforts to expand their facilities. To support our pro bono attorneys, the Pro Bono Center provides training, mentorship, and other support to make their service as manageable as possible while also ensuring that our clients get the highest quality of representation possible.


Washington, D.C. has an enviable pro bono culture, but we, like other pro bono programs across the country, have faced challenges in attracting and retaining volunteers in recent years. In this rapidly changing environment, we have had to look inward and evaluate how to support our pro bono attorneys while best serving our clients.

In 2014, the Pro Bono Center convened a Strategic Assessment Task Force to assess our current services and to create a five year strategic plan. James J. Sandman, president of Legal Services Corporation, former D.C. Bar president, and former chair of the Bar's Pro Bono Committee, chaired the task force. More than a thousand stakeholders from law firms, government agencies, other legal services providers, clients, and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia participated in the assessment through interviews, focus groups, surveys, and outreach meetings. We listened to what our stakeholders viewed as our strengths and areas for growth. As a result, we looked closely at the resources expended on our projects and we reduced a few of our services to make room for higher impact work. We also made structural and substantive changes to respond to the different demands and challenges our pro bono volunteers are facing.

Transforming Lives

The Pro Bono Center is honored to receive the 2016 Harrison Tweed Award for long-term excellence. Our mission is to “transform lives by providing free legal assistance to individuals, nonprofit organizations, and small businesses through volunteer lawyers.” We have had the opportunity to play such a critical role in the District because we view that transformation through both the client and volunteer’s eyes. As we work to fill gaps, create opportunities, and evolve, we see the impact our volunteers have each day in keeping people in their homes or helping a community health center open in an underserved area. What is harder to quantify is how it changes our volunteers. An associate who took a housing case with the Pro Bono Center and ultimately helped remedy housing code violations for a family told us, “[taking on this pro bono case] was and still is the most significant professional experience I’ve had … You actually feel like you have changed their lives and their circumstances in a significant way.” [3]

Beyond every strategy that helps us retain and attract volunteers, these moments and the ability to change lives is our greatest strength.


[2] Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts provides access to education, advocacy, and legal services through workshops and seminars, legal clinics, and pro bono referral services for creatives and cultural organizations.

[3] (Housing Video)

Monika Kalra Varma

Executive Director, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center

Monika Kalra Varma is the Executive Director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, the largest provider of pro bono legal services in the District of Columbia, serving 20,000 individuals, nonprofit organizations, and small businesses. She has spent her career working on human rights and social justice issues locally and globally. Monika previously served as the Director of the Center for Human Rights at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. From 2000-2001, Ms. Varma was an associate legal officer with the Office of the Prosecutor at the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.