Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Client Profile: Ms. B

Maggie Donahue, Staff Attorney

As a poverty lawyer, I’ve heard it many times.  “That’s great work you’re doing, really it is.  But doesn’t it get frustrating working with . . .  those kinds of clients?”

Since I began working as a staff attorney at Legal Aid, I’ve heard various sweeping iterations from others of what all of my clients must be like.  According to acquaintances I’ve met at parties, and even a judge I’ve appeared before in D.C. Superior Court, my clients must be “difficult,” “entitled,” or “frustrating.”

I, of course, do not claim that all my clients are perfect, nor do I think that being a legal services housing lawyer is devoid of the stresses that come from a job that interfaces with people in crisis.  Without question, I do come across people in my day-to-day job who are difficult, entitled, and frustrating.  But often, they are fellow members of the bar, not my clients, who I see display these characteristics.

Rather than having me try to rebut the negative generalizations, describe what Legal Aid clients are really like, and explain why without fail, interacting with clients is the highlight of my day, I think sharing the following profile of one of my clients may be most effective at beginning to break down the stereotypes about our client community:

Client: Ms. B.

City of Birth: Washington D.C.

Current Neighborhood:  Anacostia, SE.

Why did you come to Legal Aid? How did Legal Aid help you?  I came to Legal Aid because I needed help.  The day I was in the courtroom, I had no idea what I was going to do.   I heard the judge say, if you want to talk to Legal Aid before you go before the judge, then you can step out and do so.  I thought God had sent me an angel.

I went and spoke to someone and I explained my story.  She understood everything I was saying – and I didn’t feel like I was being preached to– I felt like I was being understood.   I explained about the mice.  I didn’t have good pictures – I just had them on my phone – but you could see the massive amounts of cockroaches.

You guys are really genuine.  You are almost like teachers.  You are teaching us about our rights as tenants.  A lot of people don’t know the rights they have.  Legal Aid helped me know a lot of things I didn’t know before.

We know that if we don’t pay our rent, we’re in a lot of trouble.  We don’t know that we have rights to not pay our rent for certain reasons.  We don’t know that if repairs aren’t being made to our homes, we have the right to withhold our rent.  You don’t want to put your voucher in jeopardy.  But even though you are on section 8, you have rights.  It’s not fair that these landlords are getting the full market rent for the neighborhood – and sometimes I think more– when they don’t do repairs and they let their tenants live in bad conditions.

It’s always good to know as much as you can about anything – that’s what I tell my daughter.  There is no such thing as knowing too much – you can never know everything, but it’s good to know as much as you can.

I think it’s [Legal Aid’s Courthouse Project] a wonderful thing to have in the courtroom.  Having someone in the courtroom with you – it makes you feel much more comfortable.  It’s intimidating to stand there in front of the judge – just you – and then, there is someone with a law degree [representing the landlord].  And it’s like, how can I fight this?  It makes you uncomfortable to even explain your story.  The fact that I had someone stand with me in court meant a lot.

What’s your favorite thing about D.C.?  How everything is convenient, whether or not you have a car or not, you can still get around.  And just that it’s where I was born.  Everywhere else, I’m home sick. 

 If your friends/family were asked to describe you, what would they say? That I’m very quiet.  Very emotional.  But a lot of people say they like to be around me.  Don’t know why.  I’m just a realist, a real person.  Genuine.

What do you do for work?  I work as a Medical Scheduler.  I schedule medical appointments for the Army, the Department of Defense.  [In the past,] I’ve had all kinds of jobs, but the medical field is what I have a real passion for.  For the past 10 years, I’ve been working in the medical field.  I started out at as a patient escort.  I like dealing with anything to help anyone get better.  I like the people, the patients.  I’ve met a lot of wonderful people.  You learn that sick people are the most humble people – they are going through so much, but you’d never know because they are the sweetest people.

 Do you have any heroes or remodels? Maya Angelou.  I used to write poems when I was younger, because I never was able to express myself.  I also have a cousin named S.  She had a daughter when she was young, but she still finished college.  She did that on her own, by herself, so I really have a lot of respect for her. 

 If you could change something about D.C., what would it be? The traffic and the one way streets!  {Laughs} No, I’m just kidding.  My coworker and I were just complaining about that.

But, really mainly, the look of D.C.  This is our nation’s capital.  Everywhere should look as nice as it does like in downtown D.C. – not just certain neighborhoods like Capitol Hill – but every neighborhood from NW to SE to NE.   If you pulled up to my neighborhood, the buildings could look a lot better – flowers should be throughout D.C.

I think this will make people start valuing themselves more.   A lot of times, your environment has a lot to do with your productivity.  And happier people.  We don’t have a lot of happy people here.

We have a lot of programs in D.C., but I feel like they should have better programs in the school system that includes professionalism – they should include professionalism in the high school curriculum.  I have been running into a lot of unprofessional young people in D.C. who haven’t been trained from the school system on how to be well-prepared for holding a job.

What are you proudest of in your life? My daughter.  I’ve been on my own since I was younger, and I ended up getting pregnant my last year in high school.  And I come from a family who tries to find all the bad things before the good.   And they kept on telling me, I wasn’t going to graduate.   And I walked across the stage when I was 6 months pregnant.  And after I had my daughter, I felt like my life started picking up, like I had a reason to be here.

Also my ambition.  I want to launch an online boutique.  And I’m going to do that.   I think my daughter is the hub of why I try so hard.  It gives you a reason to want to do better with yourself.

Do you have any hobbies?  What do you do for fun?  I’m a big movie person.  I go to movies with my daughter.  I like to go out to eat with my daughter.  I’m a free person.  I’m really flexible with what I do.  I like to do anything that is going to have me tired when I get home.  Even though I don’t have money to shop, I like to window shop.  I’m into fashion and braiding hair.  Braiding hair has been getting me through life since when I was 13.

You’ve been on your own since 13?  Yes.  When I was 13, the police and child protective services came to my home.  They wouldn’t allow me to live in the same place as my mother’s boyfriend.  Since he wouldn’t leave our home, my mother told me I had to.  I would stay with different family members, and if I felt like I was a burden and they didn’t want me, I would leave.  [What] doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  I have no hate towards my mother.  I love my mom.  I have no grudges against her.  I just know women can get weak when they meet a man.  And I think that’s what happened with her.

When I turned 16, I ended up moving back to D.C., finally to a stable place to keep my head.  We lived in bad neighborhoods– my family kept saying I wasn’t going to do anything because the person I was living with had a bad reputation – but living with her helped me strive to not do the things she was doing.  She put me out when I was 18.   I kept going to section 8 [the D.C. Housing Authority] every day begging them to help me, and I finally got my voucher and my first place when my daughter was one year old.

It’s ok if you talk about my struggle.  The people who have been through so much, are some of the best people you’ll ever meet.  They are more genuine.   They value people, they value life.   I value people, I value my life.

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