Observations from Boston Housing Court’s Lawyer for the Day

 Guest Post: Jack Caplan is the current Lawyer Referral Service Co-op Intern at the BBA. Jack is a sophomore year at Northeastern University studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. After spending the morning shadowing the Lawyer for the Day table at Boston Housing Court, he shared his experience with Beyond the Billable.

Just after 9 am last Thursday morning in the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston, over 200 attorneys and members of the public crammed into one hot courtroom.  It was standing room only as people tried to find any space they could to claim as their own.  The physical bar which typically separates court observers from lawyers (the same bar from which the exam and Association get their names) was soon ignored, thus blurring the line between who’s an attorney and who isn’t.

The Clerk began calling out each case number and the respective plaintiffs and defendants answered with whether they wanted to try mediation or go straight to a bench trial.  Looking around the room you could see a microcosm of Boston itself: an MBTA driver searching for a seat before giving up and standing, much like her passengers at rush hour; a mother and father trying to quiet their young children with toys; and who EMT missed the first call of her case because of a last minute emergency at the end of a long night shift.  The atmosphere was understandably tense considering people’s homes were on the line, but the Clerk and Court Officer kept the mood light through jokes and banter.

A vast majority of those present elected to go to mediation and were directed to a lower floor of the sprawling Courthouse.  This sent them straight past the tables of the Volunteer Lawyers Project where landlords and tenants alike could stop by to ask questions, get help filing motions, and even get representation for mediation as part of a Limited Assistance Representation structure.  Attorneys were running around and talking to clients and the scene upstairs at the peak of the morning could only be described as chaotic.  But speaking with the volunteer attorneys it quickly became clear that they didn’t mind at all – in fact they loved it – their passion was palpable.  They had the chance to help out the roughly 95% of tenants who go into housing court without counsel.  Results for litigants with some level of representation are so vastly and almost unbelievably better than for those who go in totally alone.

Indeed, going to Housing Court while Lawyer for the Day is running can be one of the best antidotes to the otherwise negative feelings brought on by statistics like the one above.  It’s statistics like that, statistics which cast a tragic light on the state of justice in Massachusetts and America, which compel many of these attorneys to volunteer their time.  The impact that the dozen or so attorneys were able to make last week is truly a sight to behold.  Tenants who were convinced that they would lose their homes suddenly had hope provided by the attorneys.  The impact of donated time and expertise was noticed, appreciated, and sometimes immediate.

The Volunteer Lawyer’s Project administers frequent trainings for attorneys interested in helping out.  The Lawyer for the Day program itself occurs each Wednesday from 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM (public housing cases) and Thursday from 9:00 AM – 3:30 PM (private housing cases) in front of Courtroom 15 at the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, 24 New Chardon Street, Boston, MA. If you have questions about volunteering or would like to learn more, please contact Cassandra Shavney the Boston Bar’s Public Service Programs Coordinator, or Milton Wong of the Volunteer Lawyers Project.

The need is constant, the difference is instant: consider volunteering today.