Our Mission and Story

Since 1967, University Legal Services (ULS) has worked to safeguard the rights and well-being of DC residents. We are firmly committed to the preservation of our thriving DC communities and the advancement of socioeconomic equity for their members.

A mural on a bridge shows colorful stick figures of children playing hopscotch.

The Soul of DC

Our History

Serving DC’s communities since 1967

ULS has a long and storied past in the District of Columbia. ULS was established in 1967 to provide legal services to DC residents with low and moderate incomes. The founders of ULS, five Catholic priests, two of whom had ties to Catholic University, created a community clinical program for law students. Although the program lost all ties to Catholic University shortly after its first year, the name remained. ULS began receiving funding from the United Way, the Campaign for Human Development, the DC Bar, and the Dominican Order. By the 1970s, ULS had a small staff as well as Vista attorneys.

When the 1968 riots began, ULS’ neighbors caulked in large letters “Soul” across the office’s front door to protect ULS, a vital part of the neighborhood, from harm or damage. Martial law was imposed, and the Army and police patrolled the streets. The D.C. Department of Human Services requested ULS to serve as a food distribution center for the neighborhood and regularly delivered truckloads of food to ULS’ office. Joseph Cooney, a ULS founder, had been a prison chaplain at Lorton Federal Prison. Men who were formerly incarcerated at Lorton, now lived in the neighborhood, and knew Joseph helped supervise the distribution of food to neighbors.

In the early years, ULS handled housing, social security, and welfare/public benefits issues. For example. ULS litigated and won a federal housing discrimination suit on behalf of a tenant against Dunphy Realty. ULS represented many tenants prior to the enactment of the District’s Rental Housing Act of 1985, which established tenants’ rights based on litigation in the 1970s. One such case was Mendes v. Johnson, in which ULS argued successfully against a landlord’s common law right to self-help evictions. Mendes served as a critical turning point for the preservation of tenants’ rights as it required landlords to seek court action and justify legal bases prior to attempting to evict tenants. In 1996, the mayor of the District of Columbia designated ULS as the protection and advocacy agency to protect the civil, legal, and human rights of people with disabilities under the federal legislation that established a national protection and advocacy network.