Nov 02


Preparing for an Initial Interview


Alice Topping,Intake Coordinator

Last year, nearly 5,000 people called Legal Aid seeking legal assistance or information.  Over this same period, Legal Aid staff and volunteers completed in-person, initial interviews with over 3,400 applicants who came to our main office, or one of our community or court-based sites.  As Intake Coordinator, one of my primary responsibilities is helping people who call Legal Aid determine whether they have a legal issue that falls within our practice areas or are eligible for our services.  If so, I invite them in to complete an initial interview.  If not, I try to connect them to another resource so they can get the help they need.

The initial interview is an opportunity for us to learn about an applicant’s legal problems, so we can make an informed decision about whether we can offer legal advice, and, in many cases, representation.  We understand that dealing with legal issues and seeking legal help can be stressful, confusing, and overwhelming.  In order to make the process less daunting, I wanted to take this opportunity to offer five basic tips to keep in mind if you are planning to come in for an initial interview, or are a service provider who often refers individuals to us:

 1)      Do Not Hesitate to Call Before You Come In.  If you are unsure about whether you have a legal problem that falls within our practice areas or are eligible for our services, just give us a call at (202) 628-1161 or visit our website. You don’t have to call, but it may save you the trouble of coming in to the office if we don’t handle the type of legal issue you are facing. 

2)      Be Prepared to Describe the Type of Case or Legal Question You Have.  Once you arrive for an initial interview, one of the first questions we will ask you is, what brought you to Legal Aid?  Being able to explain the type of case or legal problem you are facing as best you can helps us figure out what information we need and what questions to ask you. 

3)      Bring Any Documents You Have With You.  If you have any documents or papers related to your case or legal problem, please bring them with you.  These may include court papers, letters from your landlord, notices from a government agency, letters about your benefits, receipts for payments you have made, or anything you think is important or you want us to read.  The documents help us better understand your situation.  If you don’t have any documents, you should still come in for an initial interview.

4)      Think About Your Goals.  If you have a legal problem, it is helpful to think about what you would like to see happen when the case is over or the problem is resolved. Your goals will be different depending on the type of case or problem.  You may be trying to avoid eviction or get your landlord to make repairs.  Maybe you want to work out a child custody agreement or change the amount of child support you are paying.  Or maybe you are trying to get benefits such as disability benefits, Food Stamps or Medicaid or one of your benefits has been reduced or terminated.  Your goals may change over time, but it is helpful to start out with an idea of what you want to accomplish.

5)      Understand that We Will Need Some Time to Review Your Intake.  It is important to keep in mind that it is unlikely that we will be able to tell you right away if we can represent you or help you with your legal problem.  While we may be able to answer some of your questions during the initial interview, we will need some time afterward to review the information and documents you give us before we can let you know if we can further help you. 

Our goal is to provide the best service we can to anyone who comes to Legal Aid seeking assistance. Keeping these five tips in mind while preparing to come in for an initial interview, or referring someone to us will help us provide the best service possible to all applicants.

Nov 01


Jack C. Keeney, Jr. recognized among 2013 “Best Lawyers” and Legal Aid named “Best Law Firm” by U.S. News

Jack Keeney, Director, Barbara McDowell Appellate Project

Legal Aid is pleased to announce that Jack C. Keeney, Jr., Director of the Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project, has been named a 2013 “Best Lawyer” by the U.S. News Media Group and Best Lawyers as part of their annual peer review assessment. Jack, who received the prestigious Justice Potter Stewart Award earlier this year from the Council for Court Excellence, came to Legal Aid in January 2011 after a distinguished career at Hogan & Hartson (later, Hogan Lovells) where he was, among other things, the partner-in-charge of the firm’s award-winning pro bono practice and an expert on ethics and professional responsibility. Jack’s reputation in this area of practice has carried over to his work at Legal Aid, and the recognition he received today is for ethics and professional responsibility law. As a result of Jack’s inclusion in the “Best Lawyers” listing, U.S. News and Best Lawyers’ gave Legal Aid a “Tier 1” rating in this area of law for the Washington D.C. metropolitan region in its 2013 “Best Law Firm” rankings, also released today.

Oct 25


Offering Real Alternatives to Incarceration for Parents Facing Contempt

Ashley McDowell, Staff Attorney

Last month, the Center for Family Policy and Practice recently issued a Policy Briefing focused in part on issues important to Legal Aid’s client community and brought to the forefront by the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Turner v. Rogers: How to ensure that low-income parents comply with child support orders, and how to effectively use tools like civil contempt and social service programs to help non-compliant parents pay.  Programs that offer parents assistance with employment needs or job training as an alternative to contempt and incarceration are an important step in the right direction, but many low-income parents have other unaddressed needs – such as mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and a lack of stable and affordable housing – that frustrate their ability to take full advantage of “jobs not jail” programs.  If vulnerable parents are unable to make good use of these types of programs, they are still at risk for contempt and incarceration.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement released a related report, Alternatives to Incarceration, highlighting what jurisdictions around the country are doing to confront these issues.  The report finds that “jobs not jail” programs are most effective when they address the constellation of challenges that low-income parents often face.   Successful employment programs include not only job placement assistance, but also case management, where professionals monitor a parent’s transition into a new job and communicate with the court and agencies about the parent’s progress.   Also successful are specialized problem-solving courts created and run by the judiciary.  In these programs, the court takes the lead on addressing not only child support, but the other various obstacles facing low-income parents.  Attorneys at Legal Aid have seen the success of these types of intensive programs in the District’s Fathering Court. 

A holistic approach is needed in the District to meet the needs of low-income parents who deal with unemployment and underemployment on a daily basis.  There is little doubt that providing employment programs to low-income parents who are not paying child support is preferable, especially when we consider the monetary cost to incarcerate a parent.  However, to ensure the most successful outcomes for both parents and children, these programs should address the many barriers to employment which make it difficult for some parents to obtain and keep a job.  Doing so would serve the best interests not only of parents facing contempt, but also of the children who rely on those parents for the support that they need and deserve.

Oct 23


Upcoming Events Featuring Legal Aid’s Jodi Feldman

Jodi Feldman, Director of Pro Bono and Intake

Jodi Feldman, the Director of Legal Aid’s Pro Bono and Intake Programs, will be making public appearances at two upcoming events.

First, as a part of Pro Bono Week, Jodi will be participating on a panel discussing the current approaches to providing free and reduced-cost legal services to be held on Thursday, October 25. The discussion will consider mandatory pro bono programs in law schools, the New York pro bono bar requirements, and new and innovative approaches to providing legal services. The event, held at American University Washington College of Law and sponsored by the Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law and the Law School’s Office of Public Interest, is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

Second, on Wednesday, November 14, Jodi will be serving as one of two facilitators discussing “Best Practices in Pro Bono: Building Effective Pro Bono Relationships,” at an event sponsored by the Washington Council of Lawyers and hosted by Fried, Frank, Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP (801 17th Street, NW). This panel, focused on “Getting Started,” is the first in a series of events aimed at improving and expanding pro bono legal opportunities in the District. This event is also free and open to the public, and you can register for it here.

Oct 19


Celebrating Our Pro Bono Partners

Jodi Feldman, Director of Pro Bono and Intake

The annual National Pro Bono Celebration, often called “Pro Bono Week,” sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, begins on Monday, October 21 this year, in Washington, DC and across the country.   This week-long event is designed to focus the attention of the legal community on the increased need for pro bono services during these challenging economic times and celebrates the outstanding work of lawyers who volunteer their services throughout the year.

There are several DC-area Pro Bono Celebration events and activities scheduled, including “Walk a Month in My Shoes” – A Poverty Simulation Experience for Pro Bono Attorneys Who Work with Low-Income Clients, about which we blogged last week.  Many area law firms also are hosting their own Pro Bono Celebration events.

At Legal Aid, our pro bono partnerships with law firms and individual lawyers in private practice and government are critical to our work providing legal representation to our neighbors living in poverty. Last year alone, pro bono attorneys and paralegals throughout the city provided more than 25,000 hours of service, valued at more than eight million dollars, to Legal Aid’s client community. 

Our pro bono community includes lawyers at area law firms who take on individual cases representing persons living in poverty, our extraordinary loaned associates who are embedded at Legal Aid for rotations, lawyers who conduct initial interviews at Legal Aid’s downtown office, paralegals who help staff our courthouse offices, and lawyers who participate in special projects such as our annual Medicare Part D open season initiative.  These lawyers and paralegals help tenants stave off evictions and secure rights to safe and well-maintained housing, help families at risk of foreclosure maintain ownership of their homes, represent victims of domestic violence seeking protection orders, assist parents in achieving family stability through child custody and support arrangements, represent individuals seeking disability benefits because their deteriorating health prevents them from working, and ensure that persons living in poverty access benefits available to them.

This year — as we mark Legal Aid’s 80th anniversary — we want to especially thank and recognize our pro bono partners who help make justice real for the most vulnerable in our community. We celebrate your contribution not just during Pro Bono Week, but each and every day of the year.  Thank you!


Oct 18


Advocating for the Restoration of Funding to Critical Safety Net Programs

Lucy Newton, Supervising Attorney

Last month, DC finance officials identified a $140 million budget surplus. Meanwhile, vital safety-net programs that provide critical assistance to the poorest of District residents lack sufficient funding, including:

  •  Homeless services;
  • Employment, supportive services and temporary cash assistance for families in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program; and
  • The Housing Production Trust Fund, which helps produce and preserve affordable housing.

The Mayor and the DC Council have already prioritized these programs as needing additional funding – funding which, if not restored, will have real and potentially life-threatening consequences for DC residents. For instance:

  • Half of all shelter beds in the District may close this spring, forcing nearly 1,200 homeless men and women to sleep on the street.
  • DC families struggling to get back to work will not receive employment assistance and other essential services and their already meager cash benefits will be further cut, making it nearly impossible for them to meet their families’ most basic daily needs.
  • The production of affordable housing – the only real solution to homelessness – will never keep up with the alarming number of affordable housing units DC continues to lose each year.

We join the Fair Budget Coalition in urging you to email the Mayor and DC Council now, or call the Mayor at 202-727-6263. Tell them to use some of this surplus to keep folks off the streets, get parents back to work, and build much-needed affordable housing.

Oct 17


Legal Aid Welcomes Equal Justice Works Fellow, Stephanie Akpa

Lucy Newton, Supervising Attorney

Stephanie Akpa

Stephanie Akpa, Equal Justice Works Fellow

Legal Aid is pleased to announce the recent arrival of our newest Equal Justice Works Fellow, Stephanie Akpa, who joined the Public Benefits Unit in September. Stephanie’s project, which is sponsored by The Norflet Progress Fund Advisory Committee, focuses on expanding access to quality health care for the African-American community in the District of Columbia.

Access to quality healthcare in DC is a vital issue for African Americans, a disproportionate number of whom live in poverty or on its brink. More than one in three residents East of the Anacostia River — a predominantly African-American community — live in poverty, and one in six live in deep poverty, meaning they survive on half of the federal poverty level. It is unsurprising that residents of low-income communities have worse health outcomes than those in higher income areas. They are, for instance, more likely to be uninsured and less likely to have a regular doctor. Persons living in poverty are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and be hospitalized for conditions more properly treated in a primary care setting.

Although DC — having made an extraordinary commitment to expansions in public insurance programs — boasts one of the lowest rates of uninsured in the nation, stark racial disparities persist. This Project endeavors to address these vital concerns by working to ensure that individuals receive the health insurance benefits to which they are entitled and access quality healthcare services regardless of race or income level. Stephanie will provide education and conduct outreach with a focus on assisting the Black community in navigating the complex healthcare system and understanding their rights to public insurance benefits, including Medicaid, Medicare and the DC Health Care Alliance.  She will also represent individuals who have been denied public insurance coverage or access to quality care, and she will advocate at the local level to expand health care access to all African Americans, simplify the application and benefits-selection process, and ensure that access to quality health care is expanded as DC implements the Affordable Care Act.

Before coming to Legal Aid, Stephanie worked as a litigation attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York, New York. While at Debevoise, Stephanie worked on criminal defense and immigration pro bono cases and served as a director of the firm’s legal clinic with the Knowledge Is Power Program Academy middle school in Bronx, New York. During law school, Stephanie was a student intern in the Workers and Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic and the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic. Stephanie received her J.D. from Yale Law School and her B.A. from the University of California, San Diego.

Sep 28


New video focuses on the importance of loan repayment to DC poverty lawyers

Chinh Le, Legal Director

On September 27, 2012, the D.C. Bar Foundation premiered its first video, “We Invest in Justice.”  The video, which includes, among others, Legal Aid Executive Director Eric Angel and Housing Supervising Attorney Beth Harrison, makes a compelling case about the importance of poverty lawyers and the critical role that the D.C. Bar Foundation and D.C.’s loan repayment program plays in the delivery of legal services.  Click here to read more and watch the video.



Sep 28


Legal Aid Welcomes Skadden Fellow, Ashley Waddell Tingstad

Heather Latino, Consumer Unit Supervising Attorney

Ashley Waddell Tingstad

Ashley Waddell Tingstad, Skadden Fellow

Legal Aid is pleased to announce the arrival of a new Skadden Fellow, Ashley Waddell Tingstad.  Ashley is joining the Consumer Law Unit where she will provide legal representation and outreach to DC’s low-income community in debt collection and other consumer law cases.  In addition, Ashley will advocate for systemic reform, with a particular focus on DC’s Small Claims Court, where debt collection cases make up an overwhelming percentage of the docket.  As part of her project, Ashley will collaborate with community legal services providers to implement and staff the Consumer Law Court-Based Legal Services Project.  The Project will place legal services attorneys at the courthouse to provide same-day representation to pro se litigants in debt collection cases. 

Regardless of merit, debt collection cases often result in default judgments or settlements that can have a devastating impact on people living in poverty.  A number of prominent legal commentators, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, have called our current system for adjudicating debt collection cases broken.  The system regularly deprives defendants of the opportunity to raise meritorious defenses.  Many people are not even aware that a collection case has been filed against them until after a default judgment is entered and their wages are garnished or money is taken from their bank accounts.  Defendants who do receive notice of suit often do not realize that viable legal defenses exist to protect them.  Without access to legal services, these defendants are at risk of unwittingly waiving such defenses during the course of court proceedings or at mediation.  Ashley’s fellowship will help to fill a largely unmet legal need by providing critical access to legal services in consumer debt collection cases. 

As a fluent Spanish speaker with a history of serving the Hispanic community, Ashley’s project will have a particular focus on meeting the legal needs of low-income Spanish-speaking clients.

Sep 26


Legal Aid to Co-Sponsor Invitation-Only Advanced Family Law Litigation Training

Stephanie Troyer, Supervising Attorney

Legal Aid is excited about a new training opportunity for experienced pro bono attorneys who want to take the next step in advancing their family law litigation skills.   Along with Bread for the City and the DC Bar Pro Bono Program, we have arranged an invitation-only advanced training on property distribution issues that may arise in divorce and child custody cases.

 This training will provide pro bono attorneys with information and skills necessary to litigate more complex custody and divorce cases, covering topics such as:

  • dividing marital property/assets and debts
  • alimony
  • tax consequences of the division of property
  • requesting possession of a marital home 

 If you have experience litigating pro bono family law cases and are interested in developing additional expertise in divorce-related topics, please contact Stephanie Troyer at by October 24, 2012 for more information.  The training will be held on Thursday, November 1, 2012, from 1-5 p.m. at the DC Bar offices, 1101 K Street, NW.