Volunteer Engagement & Private Attorney Involvement
Legal aid organizations have utilized a number of methods to engage volunteers in their work, not only as a way to expand services to clients but also to involve and invest the community in providing access to justice to the low-income population.
An effective plan to engage volunteers addresses:
- The needs of the client community and ways in which volunteers can help meet those needs
- A range of volunteer opportunities available to private attorneys, law students, and other professionals
- Strategies to recruit, train, retain, and recognize volunteers
- Methods for referral that encourage participation
- Oversight, management, and quality assurance procedures for pro bono work
Washington, D.C.'s Housing Right to Counsel Project
Today, more than 11 million families spend over half of their incomes on rent. Some even spend as much as 80 percent. What this means is that millions of Americans face the threat of eviction, and when they do get sued for eviction, they often don’t have help.
In fact, in many housing courts across the United States, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys and 90 percent of tenants are not. These numbers are even more pronounced in Washington, D.C., one of the most expensive places in the country to live. In the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court, approximately 95 percent of landlords are represented while 90 percent to 95 percent of tenants are unrepresented.
This disparity, highlighted by the fact that unrepresented tenants often waive their rights, fail to raise critical defenses, and are pressured into one-sided agreements that inevitably lead to eviction, is why four organizations—Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center—launched the Housing Right to Counsel Project in 2015.
The project implements a practice model that combines intensive outreach to low-income tenants, a proactive agreement of limited or full representation, and collaboration between legal aid providers and pro bono attorneys. As of late 2015, the project had secured commitments from more than a dozen D.C. law firms to take on eviction cases. Through this innovative pro bono model, law firms establish housing practice groups and develop in-house expertise and mentoring capacity.
Although the project has only been around for a short while, pre-court outreach has proved more successful than any previous effort. Among the findings:
- About 25 percent of tenants respond to an offer of representation letter.
- Tenants who receive outreach letters are 20 percent less likely to default, even if they don’t follow through on the offer of representation.
- Most cases receiving any representation remain unresolved.
For more information on the Housing Right to Counsel Project, view the PowerPoint slides from the organizations’ presentation on “Innovations in Civil Legal Aid” at the 2015 NLADA annual conference here.