Pro Bono Community Profiles: Maureen Syracuse, D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program

The DC pro bono and legal services community will lose a zealous advocate and a wealth of knowledge this September when Maureen Thornton Syracuse retires from her position as Director of the DC Bar Pro Bono Program. We had an opportunity to speak with Ms. Syracuse about her 19 years of experience as a Pro Bono Director and her take on how the pro bono landscape has changed over the years. In part one of this post we highlight her responses to questions about the evolution of Pro Bono in the District of Columbia.

Pro bono development in the District of Columbia

How have you seen the pro bono landscape change during your 20 years at the DC Bar?

When I started in the 1980’s the pro bono partnership, a network for law firms with organized pro bono programs, had just 12 law firms. Today membership has increased to approximately 113 law firms or agencies.

When the DC bar started the advocacy and justice clinic in 1993 it was the first time large law firms in DC were being asked on a systematic basis to take on individual poverty cases. Now many legal service organizations, in addition to the DC Bar, have pro bono programs who partner with these law firms. In essence, both the commitment from law firms and the partnerships provided by legal services have grown significantly.

Another major way the pro bono landscape has changed is in regard to collaborations. When I first started the DC legal services community did not spend as much time together or know each other but now there is the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers (“Consortium”) which is made up of 30 legal service organizations. The group first started meeting in the early 1990’s and now has become well established. The Consortium has also been a very important vehicle for forming strong collaborations and providing support to each other during times of limited resources.

How have you seen the law change? Has it really changed?

There has been significant growth in engagement of the courts. The DC Bar now has four resource centers run directly through court houses. There are landlord-tenant, probate, consumer and tax sale resource centers. All of these programs are run by the DC bar but staffed by pro bono volunteers.

Additionally, judges have become more willing to speak out about pro bono. On several occasions since 1995, during times of financial hardships for legal services, the DC Bar president has joined with court judges to call together the managing partners of DC’s largest law firms. At these meeting the firms were asked to partner in efforts to maintain free legal aid for low income residents. As a result the firms made commitments to staff intake at local programs, volunteer at clinics or take on other projects.

Also, in 2001 when everyone was worried about the economics of law practice, the DC Bar partnered with the Pro Bono Institute and again met with managing partners at 75 of the largest law firms and asked them for a commitment to providing pro bono legal services. Today there are approximately 66 of the largest law firms who commit, and usually exceed, 3-5% of their hours to pro bono work.

Later this week: Part 2: Advice and Counsel for Pro Bono Managers.

~ Adrienne Packard

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