Raising the Bar in D.C.: A Funding Campaign for Legal Services

District law firms are among the most generous in the nation in providing pro bono and financial support for legal services. Because of this tradition of engagement, law firms are a crucial part of the legal services delivery system and valued partners in access to justice efforts. Despite this commitment, too many vulnerable District residents are forced to navigate the legal system alone, even when those things they most value are in jeopardy. There is no doubt that the recession and the aftermath of a weakened economy has widened the justice gap. Funding for legal services dropped an alarming 25% in 2009 while requests for legal services increased by approximately 20% (the Commission is in the process of gathering updated data on this and other data points). Funding levels have not stabilized. The IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts) Program alone is down over 80% from 2008 levels, costing the network over one million dollars in lost resources. Even before the recession, the legal services network was able to meet only a fraction of the need. Even in good economic times, the legal services network is chronically underfunded and lacks the capacity to meet the critical legal needs of the District’s indigent residents.

To meet the urgent need for increased funding for legal services, the D.C. Access to Justice Commission formally launched the Raising the Bar in D.C. Campaign in December 2010, with the endorsement of the D.C. Bar Foundation and the D.C. Bar. The Campaign’s goal is to substantially increase financial support to the District’s legal services community by establishing benchmarks for law firm giving and annually recognizing and celebrating those firms that have donated at benchmark levels. A Leadership Circle of eight leading law firms — Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Covington & Burling LLP, Crowell & Moring LLP, DLA Piper LLP, Jenner & Block LLP, Sidley & Austin LLP, Steptoe & Johnson LLP, and Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP — joined in the launch of the Campaign by pledging to donate funds to local legal services providers at a benchmark level in 2011 and by joining the Commission in an appeal to the law firm community. Twenty–three firms ultimately joined the Campaign for 2011, together donating over $3 million to local legal services organizations. This represented over a half-million dollar increase in giving by those firms over 2010 levels. The Commission was delighted to be joined by Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Mayor Paul Quander to honor those firms at an event in Spring of 2012. In 2012, thirty-six firms participated in the Campaign, donating nearly $3.6 million to local legal services organizations. This represents an over $830,000 cumulative increase by all participating firms since they joined the Campaign. The Commission is deeply grateful to the Honorable David S. Tatel and Mayor Vincent Gray for joining the Commission to honor those firms in April 2013.

With the onset of the Fall Season 2013, the Commission has started its efforts to enlist firms in this year's Raising the Bar Campaign! We encourage all the firms and solo practitioners from 2011 and 2012 to recommit to, and for new firms and solo practitioners to join, this year's Campaign!

The Campaign urges all law firms and solo practitioners in the District, regardless of their size, to give generously to local legal services providers at one of three levels:

Platinum:   .11% of D.C. office revenue
Gold:   .09% of D.C. office revenue
Silver:   .075% of D.C. office revenue

Because the benchmark is set as a percentage of revenue, the tiers are equally accessible by firms of all sizes. Cash donations, donated attorney’s fees, and payments for fellowships sponsored by the firm are all included. Because the Campaign is focused on the local crisis in legal services, only contributions to organizations that operate in D.C. and have as a core mission the provision of civil legal services to low-income or underserved District residents are considered in meeting the base benchmark level. The Commission recognizes that law firms make critical contributions to a range of other organizations and urges them to sustain funding to those entities at traditional levels. However, this initiative is intended to reflect the unique obligation that lawyers have to ensure equal access to justice for low-income individuals, and to encourage firms to support the local communities in which they are located.

For more information please click on the following links to learn more: list of participating firms, project history, initial appeal letter from Leadership Circle, FAQ, 2013 pledge form, list of eligible recipients organizations and media coverage.

For more information, or to join the Campaign, contact Jess Rosenbaum, Executive Director of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, 202.344.4441, jess.rosenbaum@dcaccesstojustice.org.