Legal Aid — Helping Those in Need

Legal Aid — Helping Those in Need

August 8, 2002

Though their offices are located in the heart of fashionable Old Town Alexandria, the four attorneys who comprise the staff of the Alexandria office of Northern Virginia Legal Services work grueling hours for little pay, meeting the legal needs of those who can’t afford private attorneys.

Between July 1, 2000, and June 30, 2001, the staff handled 1,243 cases. Three hundred and fourteen of these cases were family issues; 279 were consumer cases; 201 were income maintenance; 213 were landlord/tenant or other types of housing cases; and 236 were classified as "other."

“You can’t quantify some of these cases in the amount of benefit that the client received,” said Charles Greenfield, the executive director of Northern Virginia Legal Services. “I can tell you that we got more than $2 million in benefits for some of the clients, however, in Social Security and other benefits cases. That is not inconsequential.”

The Alexandria office is one of five local offices within Northern Virginia Legal Services. Sylvia Brennan is the managing attorney in Alexandria. She is also the housing law chairman. “We handle almost every type of civil case,” Brennan said. “We don’t handle any criminal cases because we have a very good public defender’s office that does that. We also don’t handle cases involving personal injury where a private attorney could earn a lot of money. We are, after all, a nonprofit agency. We want to get money for our clients, but not for ourselves.”

BRENNAN GRADUATED from law school at Catholic University in 1991. “I thought I wanted to practice international law,” she said. “Then I did some volunteer work in the Arlington office of Northern Virginia Legal Services, and when there was an opening in the Alexandria office, I applied. I love what I do and can’t think of any other place I’d like to practice law now.”

Carolyn Grimes, a private attorney in Alexandria, is a member of the Legal Services Board. She conducts pro bono training for the much-sought-after volunteer attorneys that Legal Services relies on to supplement the staff. “I got involved because I believe very strongly that it is every attorney’s responsibility to volunteer some time to help those who cannot afford private legal assistance,” Grimes said. “Most of us are well-educated and are making a good living. We should take the time to provide free services.”

In addition to volunteering her time to serve on the Board and conduct training, Grimes handles a number of domestic relations cases for the office. “I really think that pro bono work should be a requirement for every member of the Bar,” Grimes said. “Even if we have a minimum. It’s a place to start.”

The budget for the Alexandria office is just over half a million dollars a year. That money comes from a variety of sources. “A small portion of our budget is an appropriation from the Virginia General Assembly,” Greenfield said. “We also get a portion of civil filing fees, money from each of the local jurisdictions, private grants and some federal money.”

THAT FEDERAL MONEY, however, has some restrictions. “Congress has said that we cannot represent any undocumented person, and because, especially in Arlington and Alexandria, we have so many people that fall into that category, we have taken all of our federal money and created Potomac Legal Aid,” Brennan said. “Potomac Legal Aid now handles the cases that can be worked under the federal guidelines, and we handle cases with only unrestricted money.”

This year the City of Alexandria will contribute $150,000 of that unrestricted money through the Community Partnership Fund. Last year, that amount was close to $180,000, meaning that the office is losing one attorney. “Council made a decision not to increase the amount of the Community Partnership Fund this year,” said Assistant City Manager Mark Jinks. “That is the reason for the cut. Next year, we are going to take a look at the manner in which all of the Community Partnership funds are allocated and establish clearer priorities.”

One of the volunteers who is helping to make up for one less staff attorney is William Pratt. Pratt spent 28 years as a corporate tax attorney for Mobil. “I practiced office law and was never in a courtroom as a litigator,” Pratt said. “I decided I wanted to try something different after I retired.”

Pratt spends three days a week in the office. He remembered his first courtroom experience. “My client had been sued by a used-car dealer,” he said. “I was questioning the plaintiff and needed to hand him a document. My hands were shaking so bad that he made a comment about it. We still won.”

Pratt’s hands don’t shake anymore, and he is enjoying his work. “I particularly like the consumer cases,” he said. “They are all different, and I have really enjoyed getting to know the people who I help.”

PRATT RECENTLY won the volunteer award for Alexandria from Northern Virginia Legal Services. “We need people like Bill to help us meet the needs of this community,” Brennan said.

Anyone who would like to volunteer to help or who would like to learn more about Northern Virginia Legal Services may call 703- 684-5566 or visit the Web site at