Nonprofit Law Firm Chief On The Need For Low-Cost Aid

By RJ Vogt | May 17, 2020, 8:02 AM EDT

Hospitality workers, bus drivers, lab technicians, school employees — the people who have felt some of the most severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — are the people Gabrielle Mulnick Majewski spends most of her time trying to help.

Majewski is executive director of the DC Affordable Law Firm, Washington, D.C.'s only nonprofit legal services provider for people living at 200% to 400% of the federal poverty line. The firm, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was created in 2015 by Georgetown University Law Center, Arent Fox LLP and DLA Piper.

Gabrielle Mulnick Majewski

Its clients, which might include a family of four earning anywhere from $52,400 to $104,800 or a single person earning between $25,520 and $51,040, are typically ineligible to receive free legal aid because they earn too much to be considered low-income. But at the same time, Majewski said, "they're certainly not wealthy enough" to afford representation by private attorneys who charge hourly rates of $300 to $600.

"These folks comprise 19% of the population in D.C.," Majewski said. "So DC Affordable Law Firm fills a critical void where folks are otherwise left to go it alone in navigating the justice system."

Earlier this month, Law360 spoke with Majewski about her firm's unique model and how it could play a key role during the legal fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why do people need access to nonprofit, "low bono" legal services?

The benefit of a nonprofit and low bono model is the ability to increase access to justice for individuals who can only pay modest fees for representation.

There are so many legal services organizations that serve folks below 200% of the poverty level, including more than 35 in D.C. alone. Then there's also an array of grants, foundational sources and law firm pro bono programs that are centered around serving the population of folks at very low income levels.

But our clients are the folks who are teetering just above poverty levels — they're employed, but there aren't systems currently in place that acknowledge their civil justice needs. So most of those folks in these income brackets just go it alone because they can't afford high powered attorneys.

That's where I think a nonprofit model is critically important: There has not been enough visibility around the needs of these folks who really are the bedrock of our community.

How does your firm close that gap?

We have a very unique model in which our attorneys are recent graduates of Georgetown University Law Center. We start each class of new attorneys with a full day, 12-week training program that is taught by an array of professors as well as practitioners from all different facets of the legal community.

This model ensures superior representation for our clients through a whole host of services, centering around family law, immigration and probate. When folks come to us, we charge really modest rates for the work that we do: an initial consultation is a $100 fee and then we typically charge hourly rates of $75 for representation thereafter.

We work in tandem with our clients to develop affordable plans that will serve their needs and offer them predictability in what they can anticipate in their legal bills. At the same time, we're not going to pursue debt collection for those clients who do fall on hard times.

How do you afford to provide such low-cost services?

For our financial base, we are fortunate to receive both in-kind and financial contributions from our key partnerships with Georgetown, Arent Fox and DLA Piper.

For example, the recent law graduates are supported through Georgetown University fellowships. They earn an LLM through their participation and completion of our program — it's meant to cultivate and foster the growth of the next generation of public interest attorneys.

The pro bono help from the firms has been remarkable as well, especially in complex cases that would be challenging for our small firm to handle alone. Both DLA Piper and Arent Fox supply over 1,500 pro bono hours to support DCALF each year.

On top of those partnerships, we've been fortunate to receive a grant from the D.C. mayor's office to increase our representation of the immigrant community and another from the DC Bar Foundation to provide individuals in domestic relations matters with same-day services; those limited-scope services could be anything from offering legal advice to helping them draft responses to discovery or prepare for a hearing.

How is COVID-19 affecting the population you work with?

We're surveying existing clients to find out how their employment has been affected by COVID-19 and so far, more than half of those we've surveyed have either fully or partly lost their income. So I think there is going to continue to be a need both from existing clients and a whole new crop of people that wouldn't have otherwise fallen into the income brackets we serve.

Most of our clients are hospitality sector workers, bus drivers, lab technicians, school employees — the very folks whose employment is in jeopardy in ways that could not otherwise have been contemplated.

In the family law arena, there are a number of folks with emergent needs right now: An order is not being adhered to, or noncustodial parents are keeping children longer than they're supposed to, or there's some kind of inability to navigate a pickup or drop-off. In the immigration law realm, given some recent federal actions, many of our clients have a real need to ensure their families are guarded against deportation.

We've also definitely seen more probate cases coming through the doors, both those whose families have been directly affected as well as those with a renewed sense of mortality. More than 97% of plaintiffs in probate matters are unrepresented, so we have stepped in to fill that need in the District.

Why aren't there more nonprofit legal services providers in D.C. and around the country?

I think it can be a challenge to pitch the importance of funding services for folks who are employed. But the need is there in every jurisdiction in the U.S.

If other organizations were similarly equipped to serve this population, which really is essential to the fabric of our community, I think the world would be a better place, with greater equality for those who desperately need representation, are eager to obtain representation — and have few places to go.

In many ways, the pandemic has been a catalyst to what was lying beneath the surface. Our goal is certainly to serve as a model for replication. It would be phenomenal if there was something like DC Affordable Law Firm in every jurisdiction or major city around the country.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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