Volunteering with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Kegler Brown Attorneys are Advocates for Tenants

Earlier this year, the Legal Aid Society of Columbus (LASC) expanded its pro bono legal services for tenants facing eviction when it launched the pro bono Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP). LASC asked attorneys to volunteer their time to provide on-site legal representation to low-income individuals and families facing eviction. Kegler Brown attorneys have been volunteering with the program since it began in March.

Columbus courts see about 19,000 eviction filings every year, and have every year since 2004. Much higher than other parts of Ohio, Franklin County sees one eviction filing for every 9.8 rental households, which is comparable to New York City (one filing per 10.1 rental households). However, successful eviction judgements in New York occur only once for every 93 filings, while Columbus sees a successful eviction once every 30 filings, according to 2014 statistics.

Often, tenants go to court against landlords and their attorneys without any legal representation of their own, which is precisely what LASC wants to change.

“Eviction has consequences far greater than just the immediate need to find new housing,” says Dianna Howie, LASC’s Pro Bono Coordinator. “Eviction can mean uprooting kids or grandkids from their schools, spending money on a new security deposit instead of other essentials, and taking time off work to move, which further decreases the money tenants have to spend on a new place, and can even lead to job loss. So the work we do has a tremendous impact.”

The Tenant Advocacy Project combats the often one-sided system of evictions by having a daily presence at the Franklin County Municipal Court eviction courtroom. This presence not only helps tenants get legal assistance they need, but also provides volunteering attorneys with the opportunity to regularly use their negotiation and trial skills in court.

Tenants are often unfamiliar with the legal system and unsure how exactly to defend themselves. Without an attorney, tenants often don’t know that they may have defenses to an eviction, or at least may be able to negotiate a deal with the landlord to prevent having an eviction on their record. The power dynamic between landlord and tenant noticeably shifts when a tenant is represented by an attorney.

“Most of the time, the TAP attorney volunteers are negotiating a payment plan to settle the matter; we often don’t go before the magistrate. Even so, having an advocate in that negotiation is invaluable to the tenant,” says Kegler Brown litigation associate Jane Gleaves.

All representation is on-site, in-person, and, depending on client goals and legal defenses, takes 3-4 hours of the volunteer’s time. Even this limited representation has real benefits for tenants.

In a recent month, TAP attorneys helped nearly three-fourths of their clients find a positive resolution, with about a quarter seeing their eviction dismissed entirely.

Eight Kegler Brown attorneys, from directors to new associates, have taken part in TAP this year. Overall, Kegler Brown attorneys have spent more than 100 hours working with the pro bono program in 2017 alone. Volunteering with TAP has multiple benefits for not only the clients, but also the attorneys, no matter their experience level.

”It’s rewarding to see how much we help people with this work,” says Kegler Brown Director Jason Beehler. “We see the positive impact lawyers can make in the world. Legal Aid has done a great job structuring the program so participating attorneys can help as many people as possible, and also get invaluable trial experience.”

“As a first-year associate, TAP was my first experience standing up and advocating for a client in the courtroom,” Gleaves added. “There is just no substitute for that experience.”

Furthermore, participating attorneys can earn CLE credit up to a maximum of six hours per reporting period. Also, for attorneys of any experience level or practice area, in-house or corporate, the program provides a chance to try cases, which is increasingly rare. LASC provides training, template documents, consultation, and case law to assist attorneys.

Attorneys interested in more information on the Tenant Advocacy program, or how to get involved in any of the LASC’s programs, should visit the LASC’s website, or contact Pro Bono Coordinator Dianna Parker Howie at [email protected]