The simplest way to understand what the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia does is to look at its motto: “Making Justice Real.” The group’s legal director, Chinh Q. Le ’00, takes those words to heart.
Legal Aid is Washington’s oldest and largest general civil legal services program. Le supervises a staff of 40 lawyers, who last year assisted more than 1,100 individuals and families.
In addition to providing free legal representation for indigent D.C. residents, Legal Aid advocates for systemic changes to the legal system. Representing individual clients is “very fulfilling,” Le said, “because you can make a real difference in the lives of real people, but all of that work informs our larger advocacy work.”
Since joining Legal Aid in July 2011, Le has overseen litigation that forced the D.C. housing authority to improve accommodations for the hearing impaired and a class-action lawsuit that stopped a local law firm from making misrepresentations against tenants in eviction actions. The group is currently suing the Social Security Administration to end the government’s practice of withholding tax refunds based on decades-old Social Security overpayments.
Like legal-aid lawyers around the country, Le’s staff is busy— but he and his colleagues have pursued a different approach to avoid burnout. “Rather than imposing crushing case loads, we take on fewer matters, but try to litigate them to the highest level we can provide,” he said. “That not only enables our attorneys to develop their legal skills and our clients to receive high-quality representation, but also demonstrates to the courts that the cases we do bring deserve serious treatment.”
Le has been drawn to public interest work since he was a UVA undergraduate working for the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program. He later became assistant counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense & Education Fund and, from 2009-11, New Jersey’s director of the Division on Civil Rights for the Office of the Attorney General. In 2014, the National Law Journal named Le one of Washington’s 40 “game-changing” lawyers under the age of 40.
Public-interest litigation, Le said, is all he has ever wanted to do.
“It’s what made me want to go to law school, and what wakes me up in the morning and makes me happy.”