Others Teach Law, We Teach Justice

“Clients don’t stand a chance.” [1]

This was the prevailing sentiment in 1968 amongst forward thinking attorneys who sought to create a program that would improve the quality of justice available to a vast majority of small-claims defendants who could not afford legal representation.[2] Together, they fought for the creation of D.C. Law Students in Court (LSIC), an organization which would address the inequality experienced by indigent defendants in small claims and landlord tenant cases. In the 50 years since LSIC has served the District, it has remained at its core an organization committed to improving the quality of justice experienced by those who may have otherwise gone unrepresented.

Our Work

Ms. Lewis had never before experienced a financial hardship that jeopardized her housing. That was until the untimely death of her husband in 2017. One morning she woke up to find her partner had passed away; instantly her life changed. Without the support of her helpmate and the devastation that followed her loss, Ms. Lewis found herself unable to work full-time and or to remain current with her rent payments. One late payment turned into two, and soon Ms. Lewis came home to find a summons on her door for nonpayment of rent. In short, she was being evicted.

Prior to coming to court, Ms. Lewis had no idea what her rights were, how to respond to the summons, or what resources were available to her. That was until a security guard at the District of Columbia Superior Court — Landlord Tenant Branch advised she visit room 210 to speak with LSIC. When she knocked on LSIC’s courthouse door, Ms. Lewis thought at best she would receive a pamphlet detailing how to respond to the claims against her in Landlord Tenant Court. What she did not expect was to meet several law students, along with their seasoned supervising attorneys, who zealously advocated for her case. “The students and their supervisors humanized the process and were very empathetic to my situation,” says Ms. Lewis when asked to recount her first impression of LSIC’s court-based Eviction Defense Services. “If the courthouse security guards had not told me my advocates were law students I would not have known. They were nothing but professional, were clearly well trained in landlord tenant issues, and were aided by their supervisors every step of the way. I never felt uneasy about their ability to staunchly fight for my justice,” said Ms. Lewis. “They made me no false promises, and instead outlined all of my options and empowered me with enough information to advocate for myself.” Most important, “because of LSIC I knew I wasn’t alone, and instead had a community of advocates building off each other to get me the resources I needed.”

In evaluating Ms. Lewis’ case, student attorneys identified that the summons served on Ms. Lewis was in violation of D.C. Superior Court Rules. Based on this violations, student attorneys successfully advocated to have her case dismissed and even worked tirelessly to prepare for a hearing when the landlord later brought a second summons. Although it took a while to get her case resolved, Ms. Lewis is adamant that the legal advice and representation she received from LSIC was invaluable to the success of her case.

Ms. Lewis’ story is representative of hundreds of thousands of clients who have crossed through Law Students in Court’s doors since its inception in 1969. Prior to the founding of LSIC, indigent D.C. residents had limited options when it came to securing legal representation. In lieu of being represented by an attorney, the responsibility of protecting the rights of indigents or other persons not represented by attorneys rested with judges.[3] However, due to heavy caseloads judges were not always able to provide the level of assistance typically provided by an attorney. [4] Founded to fill that gap, LSIC pioneered a model for clinic legal education in the District of Columbia that opened the doors for thousands of law students from the original five area law schools: Georgetown University Law Center, The George Washington University Law School, Columbus School of Law the Catholic University, American University Washington College of Law, and Howard University Law, and now updated to also include UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, to not only gain practical legal training but to also appear in court on behalf of clients who otherwise would not have had representation.

Our Motivation

In a September 1968 Washington Post article Thomas Lippman, a staff writer at The Washington Post reported, “Fewer than 2 percent of defendants [in Small Claims and Landlord Tenant Court] are represented by attorneys. Court studies have shown that many of them have their property attached or their wages garnished as a result of court action they don’t understand, sometimes in cases they might have won if they had counsel. By contrast, 90 percent of plaintiffs were represented by counsel.” [5] Lippman continued, “For poor people who seek redress, as well as those on the defense, it will not be a question of representation by a law student rather than a lawyer, but representation by a law student rather than no one at all.”[6]

In thinking about how to alleviate the growing number of unrepresented clients who appeared before the Small Claims and Landlord Tenant Court during the 1960’s, members of the legal community pursued an innovative rule change in D.C. Courts that would allow qualified 3rd year law students to participate fully in the representation of an indigent defendant.[7] Thus, LSIC was born out of a desire to increase the number of legal advocates available to counsel indigent defendants. Today, we continue to empower law students to advocate on behalf of those clients who would otherwise be unrepresented.

Ms. Lewis’ case is but one example of the difference having legal representation can make in the outcome of a case and in the life of the client. Not only did Ms. Lewis receive beneficial legal counsel, but now she is also an advocate in her community. “Even though I’ve been through a lot, I value being there for other people and encouraging them. Every person should have an equal opportunity to be informed on how to advocate for him or herself regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. I hope that the continued work of LSIC law students brings ethics back to the process and helps ensure D.C. residents have the fair judicial experience they deserve,” says Ms. Lewis.

[1] “Student Aid to Poor in Court Vetoed.” Thomas W. Lippman. The Washington Post, June 23, 1968.

[2] “Student Aid to Poor in Court Vetoed.” Thomas W. Lippman. The Washington Post, June 23, 1968.

[3] “Law Students Favored as Aides to Indigents,” Donald Hirzel. The Evening Star, September 27, 1968.

[4] “Law Students Favored as Aides to Indigents,” Donald Hirzel. The Evening Star, September 27, 1968.

[5] “Student Counsel for Poor Voted.” The Washington Post, September 27, 1968.

[6] “A Question of Justice.” The Washington Post, Thursday September 27,1968.

[7] Consortium of Universities Newsletter. November 1968.