Just another Tuesday @ BFC
*Remarks by S. Tyler Hale at Venable LLP’s 2015 Civiletti Pro Bono Awards Recognition Ceremony*
For those who don’t know, Bread for the City is an organization that has planted its flag firmly on the front lines of the fight against poverty. Bread provides not only comprehensive legal services in some of the areas that most directly affect the poor, but also social services, medical care, dental care, food, clothing, and therapeutic volunteer opportunities for the District’s “most vulnerable residents.”
Although my experience has been largely limited to legal work, I can already tell that this holistic care is what allows Bread to help in ways many pro bono legal clinics cannot—unlike how lawyers typically operate, Bread’s intention is, in the words of CEO George Jones, to work itself out of business.
I thought, though, that it might be better for me to recount the experience I’ve had with one of my clients as an example of the sort of work Bread does.
Bread for the City, along with the Legal Aid Society of DC, staffs a project commonly referred to as the “Attorney of the Day” program at DC Superior Court’s Landlord and Tenant Branch. If you’ve never been summoned to Landlord and Tenant Court in DC, consider yourself lucky—the court hears 250 cases per day, in one courtroom, in front of one judge.
The defendants in these cases are largely guilty of nothing more than not having enough money to pay the full amount of one month’s rent—that is, they are guilty only of being poor. The contempt with which they are treated by the court system is visible and striking—something that any attorney who has appeared there on behalf of a tenant can tell you.
The “Attorney of the Day” program was established by Bread and Legal Aid to throw sandbags in front of the flood of unknowing and unrepresented tenants who are summoned to court and who daily, sign away rights when prompted to by the presiding judge. We maintain an office in the court building and take referrals from the courthouse’s Resource Center, attempting to help as many people as we can on any given day.
One day while staffing the program, I met a man who had nowhere else to turn. He spoke little English, and he came to us with a terrible story. Six months before, he had prepaid several months’ rent and left for his home country to see his wife and child. When he returned, he found another man living in his apartment, watching his TV, and even wearing his clothes. Within an hour, we were able to move for a temporary restraining order restoring his access to the property, to vacate the default judgment against him, and to void the settlement agreement that had been falsely entered on his behalf.
Later, at Bread for the City’s offices, I was able to introduce him to someone who spoke his language and could help him find better housing, introduce him to a food program where he could pick up both nonperishable goods and fresh produce, and even showed him around the rooftop garden to discuss his love of gardening. For me, this has been a life changing experience. For the full time Bread attorneys like Esther Adetunji and Su Sie Ju—two of the fiercest lawyers that I have ever met—this is just another Tuesday.
Of course, not all of us are called to be litigators and we each find different ways to use our talents and our privileges to help those around us. When we talk about pro bono service, we shorten the full phrase, “to practice pro bono publico”; that is, “for the public good”. While there is much public good to be done on the national and international stages, the concept of the public good—in my estimation—carries with it a profound sense of the local, the immediate.
When I came to Venable, I noticed immediately that it was engaged with the world directly around it. And I thank those who have committed themselves to contributing to the public good right in front of our eyes.
Venable has a strong history of being a part of the community in which we practice. The Venable Foundation contributes heartily to causes from our own block to the very edges of the District and beyond. Venable lawyers contribute to pro bono clinics in some of DC’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Even our new office looks out upon, by my count, two different homeless shelters.
Venable has given me a tremendous opportunity to engage with the community in which I live, and I hope that each of you has found the same chance to help that I have. I thank you for all that you’ve done and all that you’ll continue to do.
*BFC’s “Attorney of the Day” project is made possible through public funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation.