Beyond the Billable is introducing a new feature: Pro Bono Spotlight! In this monthly column, we will catch up with law firms that have dedicated time and resources to public service and pro bono projects.
For our first Pro Bono Spotlight, we spoke to DLA Piper Partner Geoff Howell, who has gotten a team of attorneys at the firm involved with the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) Housing Clinic on Mondays. The Clinic is designed to help pro se litigants better advocate for themselves in housing court.
What inspired DLA Piper and you personally to get involved with the Housing Clinic? Can you talk about some of the benefits to clients, volunteer attorneys, and the court system as a whole?
I am on the GBLS board and have been talking with them for a long time about the possibility of creating a pro bono project that would allow us to work together. DLA Piper encourages its offices to create “signature” projects that can involve everyone in the office, address issues that are of importance to the community, and have a lasting impact. We packaged together a group of GBLS-related pro bono projects, including the housing clinic, to create a “signature” project in the office.
The benefits of doing this project are many, including providing our attorneys with an opportunity to see how GBLS operates on a day-to-day basis. In addition, of course, a lawyer has an ethical duty to provide pro bono services. Our lawyers prefer to fulfill that obligation by giving back to the community in which we work. We also value the opportunity to give young attorneys the opportunity to engage in client counseling. Another ancillary benefit is that the participants in the clinic are better able to represent themselves pro se on their day in housing court, which hopefully helps streamline the court process.
What is the format of the program?
The clinic participants are people who have called or walked into GBLS for assistance on an eviction matter, and have already received a summons and complaint. They are people GBLS cannot take as clients because of staffing constraints. Attendees come to the clinic, which takes 3-4 hours, and they are then prepared to file paperwork in response to the complaint and to represent themselves on the day of their court appearance.
Is there an anecdote from a particular case that you think speaks to the benefit of GBLS’s Housing Clinic and programs like it?
It is very common to encounter a situation where the tenant simply does not understand his or her rights and cannot easily defend against the eviction, or, alternatively, counterclaim to create the leverage needed for a negotiated settlement that will allow them to stay at home. For example, some tenants do not realize they can push for a reduction in rent and/or damages due to bad conditions in the apartment that the landlord must remedy by law.
This week, we helped an elderly woman with dementia build her case so that she can, at worst, appeal for the equitable right to extend the period prior to the effective date of any eviction. At best, she will be able to get the court to require the landlord to adjust its rules to accommodate her disability, which should permit her to continue to stay in her apartment. She was assisted by a social worker, which, unfortunately, is often not the case for the clients of the clinic.
Why would you encourage an attorney in your firm to get involved in this particular partnership between GBLS and DLA Piper?
It is a great opportunity to gain a better understanding of the housing crisis in the city, counsel clients who really need the help, and assist GBLS. It is also an honor and a privilege to work with the GBLS housing attorneys, who are the very best in the business. Barbara Zimbel, Jay Rose, Mac Mcreight and their whole team have been fantastic teachers, hosts and mentors to us.
Why would you encourage attorneys in general to take on pro bono cases?
We have an ethical duty to engage in pro bono and a moral obligation to support organizations like GBLS In addition, the work is rewarding, the clients are appreciative, and it helps attorneys hone their practice skills.
What else should people know about this program?
We hope to enlist other law firms in the city into taking clinic days each month. The clinic runs each Monday and currently GBLS staffs most of them. It would be great to have outside firms handle them all, with minimal supervision from GBLS. That would free up more GBLS time to handle more complicated housing cases and matters. We also refer clients to the BBA’s Lawyer for a Day program in the event that they are going to be appearing in Boston Housing Court, making the programs a good compliment to one another.
Firms interested in participating should feel free to contact me or Thanos Matthai of this office with questions and to get connected to GBLS. I also must give Thanos full credit for his role as the co-leader of our firm’s effort. He has been a great supporter of GBLS and terrific presenter of the clinic.