Public Spirit derived from Public Spirited:
Melanie Bates—a native Washingtonian—jumped on the opportunity to give back to her community by volunteering with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advice and Referral Clinic. The Advice & Referral Clinic is a monthly walk-in clinic that offers individuals the opportunity to obtain information and brief advice with volunteer attorneys, free of charge. Volunteers are asked to commit at least 4 hours each month. Taking a short break from her work as legislative counsel at the Council of the District of Columbia, Melanie talks to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program about the importance of having pro bono advice available to District residents, how the clinic works, and the duty and privilege of holding a law degree.
DCBPB: How did you first get involved with the Advice and Referral Clinic—and what brought you back for three consecutive months?
MB: I first got involved with the Advice and Referral Clinic when the Council of the District of Columbia established its pro bono program. As a native of the Washington Metropolitan Area, I feel as though it is an obligation to give back to my community. I believe that it is crucial to the well-being of society that every person has access to affordable legal representation, especially in these tough economic times. No matter what their issue may be, it will be more efficiently resolved with the guidance of an advocate.
DCBPB: Tell us about the Clinic—who attends the clinic and how does it work?
MB: The Clinic is an excellent resource for persons who require brief legal services. The majority of clients who attend the clinic are indigent and have exhausted all other means of acquiring legal assistance. Clients arrive early in the morning to wait for the Clinic to open. They are first greeted by a paralegal, who records the nature of their issue on the intake form. Thereafter, they meet with an attorney. Essentially, clients wait for hours in order to meet with an attorney for a brief consultation. This process truly underscores the importance of our work – persons are willing to wait for long periods of time just to speak with an attorney.
DCBPB: What kind of legal issues do District residents have? Can a volunteer really help a D.C. resident in just two-hours?
MB: District residents have a wide-range of legal issues. I have assisted clients with family law, employment, landlord/tenant, and probate matters, among others. A volunteer can really help a client in just two- hours -- I generally assist three clients per session. Sometimes all it takes to resolve a client’s issue is to make a phone call or fill out a form. The clients are extremely grateful for our services. We are often their last resort, so it feels very satisfying to know that we are able to assist them.
DCBPB: You are very tuned into the legal needs of the District—what is the one piece of advice that you would offer to a D.C. Bar member who hasn’t yet jumped into a D.C.-focused pro bono assignment or project?
MB: I would stress that pro bono work in District is critical. A large portion of District residents are living in poverty. We are privileged to have a license to practice law, so it should be our duty to give back to those who need us.
DCBPB: Outside of your dedicated pro bono service and your busy work at the D.C. Council, how else do you enjoy your time in the District? Favorite D.C. activity?
MB: My hobbies and interests include: the beach, traveling, reading, museums, music/concerts, sporting events, golf, exercise, and spending time with family and friends.