For 50 years, Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) has provided free civil legal services to low-income residents of the District of Columbia. Our assistance preserves safe and affordable shelter, stabilizes family relationships, protects victims of domestic violence, secures access to healthcare and public benefits and reduces barriers to employment for our clients. As we protect fundamental necessities for individuals and families, we also seek opportunities to achieve broader change and pathways out of poverty for many.
As a pioneer of the neighborhood-based legal services model, we strive to be an integral part of the communities we serve. Our three offices are located in the most underserved areas of the District, including two east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8. We also partner with community-based organizations including libraries, job training programs and shelters to bring legal information and resources into the community through interactive workshops and on-site intake.
In the 1950s, Howard C. Westwood, a partner at the eminent law firm of Covington & Burling, and the D.C. Bar conducted studies that demonstrated vast unmet legal needs in D.C.’s underserved communities. In the early 1960s, a new concept for legal aid was emerging: that in order to maximize legal aid’s effectiveness to fight poverty, lawyers should be situated in poor communities in neighborhood-based offices.
NLSP was founded in 1964 with funding from the Ford Foundation. Unlike many legal services programs at the time, NLSP was intentionally situated in the District’s poorest neighborhoods and developed strong ties to the communities it served. From the beginning, NLSP provided access to the courts and legal system to preserve basic necessities of individuals and families and challenged systemic inequities or illegal practices.
At the time of NLSP’s birth, the nation recognized that access to the legal system was an indispensible element for overcoming poverty. On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in his State of the Union address. By 1965, the newly-created Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) included legal services in the arsenal of its anti-poverty strategies and used NLSP’s neighborhood-based approach as a model for legal services programs nationwide. NLSP was one of the first legal aid programs to receive federal funding from the OEO, and later from its successor program, the Legal Services Corporation. At its height, NLSP had 10 offices in low-income neighborhoods across the District. Budget cuts since the 1980s forced the consolidation and closure of many of its offices.
NLSP’s advocacy produced landmark cases and laws regarding the rights of the poor. For example, Edwards v. Habib established that landlords could not evict tenants in retaliation for complaints about housing code violations. Javins v. First National Realty first established that there is a warranty of habitability implied in every landlord-tenant relationship. NLSP remains committed to seeking opportunities for achieving lasting change for the clients and communities it serves.
For more information about NLSP’s history, read “Love You Madly: The Life and Times of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program of Washington, D.C.” by Brian Gilmore in the University of the District of Columbia Law Review.
Partnership with Covington & Burling, LLP
NLSP, its clients and the justice community owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the law firm of Covington & Burling, LLP. The partnership that was forged 45 years ago between the two firms has provided constant stability and guidance. Beginning in 1969, Covington & Burling, LLP started sending staff attorneys, paralegals and secretaries to NLSP for six-month rotations. One of the very first Covington attorneys to work at NLSP was Bingham B. Leverich, who later served for decades as the Co-chair of its Board. In 1994, Covington & Burling supplemented its already substantial support by funding the Howard C. Westwood Fellowship program which enables two recent law school graduates committed to public interest law to work as staff attorneys for NLSP.