As the Director of Pro Bono and Intake Programs at Legal Aid, I spend a lot of time speaking with lawyers in private practice about the professional and personal rewards that pro bono work offers. Of course, it always feels great to tell your client “we won,” especially when “winning” means being able to stay in your home, retaining custody of your children, or securing much needed benefits. I also spend a good deal of time, however, focusing on the opportunity to build one’s professional skills and confidence in ways that often complement a lawyer’s regular practice.
Latham & Watkins associate Matt Cronin recently had the opportunity to put his skills to work (and maybe pick up a few new ones) representing his client at trial in Landlord and Tenant Court …
I first learned about Ms. W’s case on a chilly January afternoon, when one of my colleagues circulated an email describing potential pro bono opportunities. I had been looking for a chance to get involved with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia’s Pro Bono Program and thought this might be a good opportunity.
After being retained as counsel, I spoke with Ms. W about her legal problems. Ms. W’s troubles began several months prior when Hurricane Irene swept across the D.C. metro region. During the hurricane, Ms. W heard strange sounds coming out of her bathroom and saw what at first appeared to be a leak. Within a few hours, the leak became a small deluge, which quickly tore open a large hole running almost the entire length of the room. Despite repeated phone calls and in-person visits, the landlord failed to repair the hole, which leaked both dirty water and debris, for nearly half a year. Ms. W ultimately withheld her rent in protest, leading to eviction proceedings.
A wise lawyer once told me that, if you want to be successful in negotiations or in court, you never prepare a case with the aim to settle. You prepare for trial. And that is what we did. Over the next six weeks, I interviewed my client and her neighbors, inspected the premises, took photographs, collected evidence, tried and rejected theories, filed briefs, won and lost discovery motions in court, subpoenaed witnesses, requested phone records, and became intimately familiar with D.C.’s sometimes unusual landlord-tenant and evidentiary law. While I wanted to make sure we were as prepared as possible, I also understood that a settlement might prove to be in my client’s best interest. With that in mind, I kept in contact with opposing counsel to see if she would agree to settle the case on terms acceptable to my client.
Although we were still discussing settlement only minutes before the trial began, we ultimately were not able to come to an agreement, and the trial proceeded. Ms. W was our first witness and she was poised and credible on the stand, as she had been throughout our representation. She also was the main witness we used to enter most of our documentary evidence into the case. A central dispute in the trial was exactly when Ms. W first provided notice of the problem to the landlord. Instead of relying on a “he said, she said” argument, we requested Ms. W’s phone records from her phone company for the relevant months. These records indisputably showed multiple calls placed to the landlord on the dates in question.
Ms. W’s testimony was bolstered during cross examination of the landlord’s witnesses. On direct examination, several of the landlord’s employees disputed Ms. W’s account. However, when confronted on cross, they were unable to explain contradictions in their own testimony. One of the highlights of the trial was asking one of the landlord’s witnesses a question and, after noticing he was looking behind me, turning around to see the other landlord’s witnesses mouthing “no” and nodding their heads back and forth. Dealing with this type of contradictory testimony required some improvisation and a willingness to approach a witness or closing argument differently than anticipated based on how the trial unfolded.
The trial ultimately resulted in a victory for Ms. W, allowing her to maintain her tenancy and providing a significant reduction in the amount of rent she owed. While I was the lead counsel on this case, it certainly was a team effort. Throughout the litigation, I was advised by Peter Winik, a senior partner at Latham, whose experience and guidance were essential to our victory. I also need to give special recognition to Uche Anikwe, a talented Latham paralegal who helped prepare the exhibits and kept track of the key points during trial. The trial team also relied upon the expertise of Legal Aid Housing Attorney Shirley Horng, who advised us on Landlord and Tenant Court procedures on numerous occasions.
-Matt Cronin, Associate, Latham & Watkins LLP