Fierce competition is one of the hallmarks among and between AmLaw 100 law firms. But last year DLA and Arent Fox, two of these firms, forged an innovative partnership with Georgetown University Law Center to build a new kind of nonprofit law firm. The law firm serves a population largely ignored until now. These three sponsoring partners created the DC Affordable Law Firm (DCALF) to serve the District of Columbia’s limited means residents.
In a recent survey by the American Bar Foundation, 66 percent of the adult population in a middle-sized city experienced civil justice problems. These include the threat of eviction and foreclosure, loss of child custody, domestic violence, and the threat of deportation. And most of those confronting these crises do so without a lawyer to help them. The sad truth is that the legal profession has largely been missing in action in addressing these concerns.
Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, provides a good illustration of just how serious this problem is. Based upon 2014 census figures, one out of every three District of Columbia residents—more than 200,000 of the city’s slightly over 600,000 residents—have such low incomes that they should qualify for free civil legal aid. But drastic cutbacks in support for civil legal services have resulted in legal aid agencies being limited to serving a tiny percentage of those who qualify for and need their assistance.1 Another 20 percent of the population—more than 110,000—have modest incomes, do not qualify for free legal aid, but do not have the means to be able to pay the rates that lawyers normally charge. Given this background, it is not surprising that over 95 percent represent themselves in matters such as eviction, child custody, and domestic violence cases. This is ironic in a city that is estimated to have more than 80,000 lawyers.2
We have reached a point in our history where the legal profession has to become a helping profession and not just for those who can afford to pay lawyers the high rates they charge. One of this article’s coauthors made a number of recommendations for addressing this access to justice crisis in a book he published in 2013 about the failure of the legal profession to address the access to justice gap.3 One of those recommendations was that the legal profession must devise ways to offer greatly reduced fees for those who are not impoverished but have limited means:
Our rate structure, particularly in BigLaw firms, was designed with larger business interests in mind. It is beyond the reach of virtually everyone else. ... The legal profession is now largely irrelevant to them. ... [T]he legal profession needs to address this gap in legal services more affirmatively.4
It is encouraging that there is now some movement in that direction. A number of law schools, bar associations, and bar foundations have begun supporting incubator programs within which space, training, and other forms of support are provided to recent law school graduates entering private practice as solo practitioners in return for their commitment to represent clients with modest means. DCALF goes even further because it is organized as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable entity with a mission to represent those whose incomes fall between 200 to 400 percent of federal poverty level. This translates to between $23,500 to $47,000 for an individual and $48,500 to $97,000 for a family of four.5
Here is the genesis of DCALF. In August 2014, Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor convened a meeting of Arent Fox, DLA Piper, and Georgetown Law representatives to discuss the “justice gap” in the District of Columbia and the feasibility of creating a “low bono" law firm to help address it. At the meeting were Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman and Marc Fleischaker, Arent Fox’s former Chair, who had previously taken the lead in examining possible ways to create such a firm. At the end of the meeting, Dean Treanor tasked coauthor Sheldon Krantz with the responsibility of developing the detailed strategic plan. Six months later, with strong support from each of the sponsoring organizations, DCALF was formed as a District of Columbia nonprofit and it received 501(c)(3) charitable status in June 2015. Krantz agreed to serve as DCALF’s initial executive on a pro bono basis and the firm hired its first group of lawyers—six graduates from Georgetown’s 2015 graduating class. DCALF began taking clients on December 15, 2015 after the six graduates went through 12 weeks of intense apprenticeship training. Heavy emphasis in the training was given to simulation and other forms of experiential learning.
After an assessment of primary areas of need and conferring with the District’s legal aid providers, DCALF decided to give primary emphasis to representing clients in the following practice areas:
- Family law
- Small businesses and nonprofits serving distressed communities
Each of the sponsoring organizations has made a major financial and pro bono commitment to DCALF for its initial three years—more than $1 million total per year. Georgetown is paying its graduates 15-month stipends and providing a cost-free LL.M in advocacy. Arent Fox is providing free space and physical and technological support. DLA Piper is taking the lead in training the new lawyers and establishing the firm’s policies and procedures. The DLA Piper Foundation also provided DCALF with initial grant support. Arent Fox and DLA Piper lawyers are, in addition, making a major pro bono mentoring, training, and supervision commitment.
The firm plans to utilize emerging technologies as a means of providing its clients the best and most cost-effective services. It has, for example, developed a client intake app on its http://www.dcaffordablelaw.org website with assistance from Professor Tanina Rostain—who teaches a course on access to justice apps development at Georgetown—and Neota Logic. This is just the beginning of DCALF’s plans for creating new ways to serve its clients. Also, with support from a Georgetown social scientist, DCALF has formulated plans to conduct careful research on the quality of its training program and the effectiveness of its service to clients. It plans to assess whether its 501(c)(3) nonprofit model—which will be limiting its fees to $75 an hour and comparably low fixed fees—is sustainable and can be replicated elsewhere.
It is the goal of DCALF’s three sponsors to use the “low bono” law firm as an added means for encouraging Georgetown graduates to pursue careers in public service—and particularly to serve the modest means population. Early indications are this goal will likely be realized. Comments by members of the first class demonstrate their level of passion for working in this new type of law firm. Chris Griesedieck, for example, described his position at DCALF as a “dream start” to his interest in serving the vast underserved modest means population.6 Jessica Berger, another one of DCALF’s new lawyers, commented that having the opportunity to be part of an initiative to seek new ways to serve this population “is incredibly exciting and important.”7
At the end of their fellowship, along with their months of training, these new lawyers will have something most of their peers lack after only one year of practice—first chair dispute resolution, negotiation and transactional experience, and the gratitude of clients who would otherwise not have a lawyer to help them with their legal needs.
It is noteworthy that two major law firms and an elite law school have joined forces to create the DC Affordable Law Firm. A similar initiative currently under development in New York, called the Court Square Project, potentially involves the CUNY School of Law, the New York City Bar Association, and 19 law firms. The Court Square Project indicates that the legal profession might finally be giving attention to unmet legal need it has ignored in the past.8 Let’s hope so.
1. Federal funding for the Legal Services, for example, declined from $420 million to $348 million at a time when poverty levels were increasing to all-time highs. Jim Sandman, the head of the Legal Services Corporation, noted that Americans spend more money on Halloween costumes for their pets than for legal services for the poor.
2. It is true that a large number of attorneys in the District of Columbia work for federal or state government agencies but that does not preclude them from providing pro bono services.
3. Sheldon Krantz, The Legal Profession: What is Wrong and How to Fix It (2013).
4. Id. At 91.
5. Anne Cassidy, “Millions of Americans Can’t Afford a Lawyer: The DC Affordable Law Firm Plans to Change That.” Georgetown Law Alumni Magazine (Fall-Winter 2015), at 26.
6. Supra Note 3 at 31.
8. Debra Cassens Weiss, “New Project Will Hire and Train Lawyers to Serve Moderate-Means New Yorkers.”ABA Journal, Oct. 15, 2015.
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