Georgetown, DLA and Arent Fox Launch Low-Cost Firm

Georgetown University Law Center, Arent Fox LLP and DLA Piper LLP are joining forces to launch an innovative law firm to provide low-cost legal services to low- and middle-income individuals.

The new firm, the DC Affordable Law Firm, is projected to open its doors in the fall. It will be an independent firm with the backing — in terms of training, supervision and financial support — of the two big firms and the law school.

The firm will help those with low incomes who don’t qualify for free legal services in landlord-tenant, trusts-and-estates and consumer matters, among others. The firm’s services won’t be free. Clients will pay approximately $75 an hour for some work, while other work may be done on a pro bono or retainer basis, or both.

There’s a great need for low-cost legal services, said William Treanor, Georgetown’s dean. “In Washington alone, we estimate that there are at least 100,000 people whose income is somewhere between two and four times the poverty level” and who would be ineligible for free representation, he said.

Arent Fox is providing from 1,000 to 1,200 square feet of its office space for the new firm. The value of that space is $300,000 to $350,000 over three years, Marc Fleischaker, a partner and chair emeritus at Arent Fox, said. Clients will enter through Arent Fox’s reception area, but there will be a separate entrance for the new firm itself.

DLA is likely to provide financial support through its foundation once the firm is certified as a nonprofit by the Internal Revenue Service, said Sheldon Krantz, a retired DLA partner and professor at Georgetown, who will serve as the firm’s executive director. In addition, DLA will “be making a significant commitment with a large number of pro bono hours and in the development of the training program,” said Krantz, who will be providing day-to-day supervision.

Initially, the firm will have six lawyers as fellows from this year’s graduating class at Georgetown. The six will receive an LL.M. in advocacy at the conclusion of the 15-month program, Treanor said in an interview Monday.

Both firms and Georgetown will provide training. Krantz will oversee the lawyers and help coordinate pro bono support by DLA and Arent Fox lawyers, he said.

Despite the big-firm backing, compensation will be in line with public interest and government jobs, rather than the pay of law firm associates. Georgetown is funding a base salary of $20,160 plus benefits, but those involved hope contributions and the firm’s eventual revenues will bring the young lawyers’ salaries of $40,000-plus, Treanor said.

The firm is the brainchild of Peter Edelman, a Georgetown professor and longtime attorney who has been involved in poverty-law projects. It took several years to get the project off the ground because it was complicated to design the mix of service, training and funding.

The model differs from so-called incubators formed by some law schools and bar associations in recent years, which support recent graduates who independently provide low-cost services to the needy. “We wanted one law firm to provide both supervision and consistency,” Fleischaker said.

As with any startup, its founders are hoping that their efforts are scalable. “We hope that this will become a model that law schools and law firms will follow to address the gap in legal services,” Treanor said.

And unlike funding for legal services, which has often been affected by political divisions, this model should cut across party lines, Fleischaker said.

“We’re helping people who cannot afford access to justice,” he said. But the firm will ultimately be financed through fees, not just donations, and young lawyers will learn how to run a firm in the process. “We hope to make this a self-sustaining model,” Fleischaker said.

Photo by Ben Sutherland (Flickr/Creative Commons)