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Cover Story: Rain or Shine, Umbrella Group Serves All

by Joseph Sullivan and Sue Wasserkrug

Summer 2001, Vol. 64, No. 2

Ten years ago this spring, Robert Heim, then-Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, gathered with several leaders of public interest organizations and the Delivery of Legal Services Committee to toss around an idea: What if the Philadelphia Bar Association could find a way to combine the dedication and expertise of public interest lawyers with the energy and resources of the private bar to provide pro bono legal help for disadvantaged Philadelphians? Should the Bar Association create a Section to expand and energize the growing cooperation between the public and private bar? Would the partnership work, or would it just add more layers to the legal bureaucracy?

At the meeting were leaders in the public interest community: Louis Rulli, of Community Legal Services; Eve Biskin Klothen, of the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program; Robert Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center; Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia; private attorneys Richard Weiner and Carl (Tobey) Oxholm; and Kenneth Shear, executive director of the Bar Association.

So many questions were raised that, in the interest of reaching a consensus, the Chancellor took the idea to a larger group of public interest and private bar leaders for a broad-based review. The same kinds of questions emerged: Would the new Section seek to control the independent public interest law centers? Would existing committees absorbed by the Section lose their seat on the Board of Governors? How would the Section be financed? Would it interfere with the fund-raising efforts of the public interest organizations? Could the new Section expand the influence of the public interest legal community, linking the public and private bar, or would it simply add more red tape?

After much debate, a consensus emerged that the Section could be a unifying force, a vehicle to enhance public-private pro bono partnerships, and a lever to expand legal services for those who could not afford them. In May 1991, the Board of Governors passed a resolution, and the Public Interest Section was born.

Thus began the Public Interest Section's odyssey: working for children, the disabled, the elderly, poor and other disadvantaged groups, addressing issues in disability law, civil rights, education, health law and benefits, rights of the homeless and other pressing areas of public interest law. In its first full year, 1992, the Section put on an array of programs and events: seminars on substantive legal issues, brown bag lunches to highlight the work of the public interest organizations and quarterly meetings with well-known speakers. Membership grew to 200 lawyers in less than a year and has grown substantially since. Indeed, the myriad activities of the Section can be viewed by surfing the Section's page of the Bar Web site at And, with dues at just twenty dollars, the Section is a "best buy" for lawyers looking to contribute to the public good, to meet a diverse group of colleagues and to get expert advice from experienced lawyers on a whole host of constitutional, civil rights and poverty law issues.

Special Role of the Bar
Of course, the Philadelphia Bar Association already had served as the birthing ground for several distinguished public interest law centers, such as Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program and the Support Center for Child Advocates. But, the creation of the Section was the catalyst for more growth. Seven committees of the Bar Association-Civil Rights, Delivery of Legal Services, Legal Rights of Children, Problems of the Homeless, Rights of the Disabled, Rights of the Hearing Impaired and Women's Rights-joined the new Section and put their collective energies to work. Committee chairs representing public interest law centers and the private bar joined forces with the hope that the whole might be more than just the sum of its parts.

Various Organizations
At the core of the Section are Philadelphia's distinguished public interest law centers (twenty-seven at last count) whose lawyers have set standards nationwide, from front-line impact litigation for civil rights and freedom of speech to direct services to indigent people facing eviction or denial of Social Security benefits. Philadelphia's public interest lawyers have been in the lead and have received numerous awards for their distinguished work as well as their leadership and inspiration to others. The issues they address coincide with the charge given to many of the Section's committees, ranging from children's rights and civil rights to homelessness and the rights of the disabled.

There is no one way to protect the legal rights of the poor. Public interest law centers follow one of three models: fully staffed direct services law center, intake-and-referral clinic or issue-oriented agency.

Perhaps the largest staff attorney law center is Community Legal Services, which relies on dozens of in-house attorneys and paralegals to represent low-income individuals and families facing problems such as eviction, unemployment, predatory lending practices and consumer fraud. Philadelphia Legal Assistance, the sister organization to Community Legal Services, also provides direct representation. While their client base and areas of representation may overlap, they differ in that Philadelphia Legal Assistance receives federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation, a funding stream for legal aid groups nationwide. As a result, Philadelphia Legal Assistance must live with certain limitations such as bans on participation in class action lawsuits and certain challenges to Congressional legislation. Community Legal Services, on the other hand, does not receive federal funding and can shoulder some of the legal burdens Philadelphia Legal Assistance cannot take on. As both Community Legal Services and Philadelphia Legal Assistance lawyers are quick to point out, there is more than enough work to go around.

Other well-known staff attorney centers are Friends of Farmworkers, Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, Nationalities Service Center, Pennsylvania Capital Representation Project, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Regional Housing Legal Services and the Women Against Abuse Legal Center.

Perhaps the best known of the organizations that take the "intake and referral" approach to serving the poor is the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program (VIP), which assists clients with a wide range of legal issues in such areas as child custody and support, immigration, probate and real estate planning and litigation defense. VIP interviews clients not only at its Center City headquarters, but through a new series of traveling clinics at various sites around the city where walk-ins are welcome. VIP then assesses the legal problems and tries to match clients with lawyers in private practice who handle the matters pro bono. VIP often aids in taking overflow cases from Community Legal Services and Philadelphia Legal Assistance, in addition to walk-in clients. Even so, the need is immense, and the struggle to find enough lawyers to aid the needy is a daily one.

In 1998, the Section responded to that need, creating a new Law Firm Pro Bono Committee to expand dialogue between the intake and referral agencies and the private bar, and to communicate current needs and expand the partnership base.

VIP is not alone in doing intake and referral. Through support engendered by committees of the Section and others, a host of subject-specific public interest law centers have thrived, including the Homeless Advocacy Project, the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project, the Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, the Support Center for Child Advocates, the AIDS Law Project, Senior Citizen Judicare and HIAS & Council Migration Services. The names of these agencies alone convey the breadth of the work done by the public and private bar.

Finally, "issue-oriented" public interest law centers try to address the needs of the disadvantaged by studying how existing laws and practices affect individuals and, where appropriate, seeking to change them. These centers include the Disabilities Law Project, the ACLU Foundation of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, the Juvenile Law Center, the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, the Pennsylvania Health Law Project, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and the Women's Law Project.

Pro Bono Opportunities
Among the many ways for private attorneys to get involved in the public interest community, perhaps the most obvious is to volunteer for one of the organizations that refer cases on a pro bono basis. An enormous range of opportunities is available to suit every interest. Associates who never see the inside of a courtroom can become intimately familiar with a variety of courtroom settings by representing a parent in a custody dispute (through the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program), assisting a disabled person obtain Supplemental Security Income (through the Legal Clinic for the Disabled), securing asylum for an immigrant (through HIAS), or representing a child who has been abused (through the Support Center for Child Advocates).

Attorneys who prefer negotiations and other out-of-court work can assist elderly clients with wills and powers of attorney (through Judicare), advise clients at legal clinics in homeless shelters (through the Homeless Advocacy Project), help parents living with HIV/AIDS to plan for the future custody and care of their children (through the AIDS Law Project), or provide legal information to artists (through Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts).

Lawyers who specialize in transactional work can assist nonprofit community groups incorporate (through the Community Economic Development Pro Bono Initiative sponsored by the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, Community Legal Services and the Homeless Advocacy Project). Real estate lawyers can help low-income residents obtain legal title to homes they rightfully own (through the Tangled Title project, a joint initiative of several organizations, including Regional Housing Legal Services and the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program). Lawyers with expertise in bankruptcy can supervise students representing low-income consumers in bankruptcy proceedings (through Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project), and lawyers with no knowledge of bankruptcy law can learn something new by attending a CBAP training and then becoming a volunteer.

In the past decade, the Public Interest Section and its committees have identified legal issues and crises of current significance and have drafted and shepherded through the Board of Governors a number of resolutions addressing those issues. In the past three years alone, the Section has sponsored or actively lobbied for resolutions adopted by the Board of Governors supporting public access to domestic relations courtroom proceedings in Philadelphia Family Court; supporting legislation to expand the jurisdiction of current federal hate crimes law; congratulating the Pennsylvania Bar Institute for its support of public interest legal education; adopting procedures for reporting instances of bias in the Philadelphia legal system; and calling for a moratorium on capital punishment, just to name a few. In so doing, the Section has worked to build a broad consensus in the legal community, and ultimately in the community at large, about critical legal issues affecting us all.

CLE Programs
The Public Interest Section has worked with the Pennsylvania Bar Institute to produce an array of continuing legal education programs focusing on public interest legal issues. Now in its ninth year, Public Interest Law Day is a full-day program geared for staff attorneys who work at public interest organizations. Topics might include new developments in various areas of the law, how to obtain attorneys' fees and ethical issues. Another annual program, "Private Practice, Public Profession," is designed to provide private attorneys the training they need to delve into pro bono work; past topics have included bankruptcy, domestic violence, immigration and probating small estates. In addition, the Section has produced a number of specialized courses. Two recent courses, "Lobbying by Nonprofit Organizations" and "Fund-raising Regulations for Nonprofit Organizations," were so popular that PBI asked the Section to produce the courses a second time.

Finally, many of the organizations that rely on private attorneys to assist clients on a pro bono basis provide training sessions; free CLE credits are available in exchange for accepting a case.

Programs for Law Students
Two committees of the Public Interest Section, Delivery of Legal Services and Law School Outreach, work together on a number of programs throughout the year that are designed to expose law students to the vast public interest opportunities in Philadelphia. A Brown Bag Lunch Series serves as a forum for summer interns at the local public interest organizations to learn about all of the other public interest organizations. Fridays during the summer, three or four organizations give short presentations about their work. These interns also are invited to an informal reception hosted by the Public Interest Section. Summer interns at private firms are able to learn about public interest and pro bono in Philadelphia at the annual Public Interest Opportunities Breakfast.

Throughout the year, panel discussions are held at area law schools to introduce students to the experiences of attorneys of color working at the public interest organizations. In addition, minority law students are invited to a reception with the public interest bar.

Changing the Law Collaborative efforts between private firms and nonprofit legal organizations have brought about a number of changes in laws that affect low-income and vulnerable groups. For example, the Problems of the Homeless Committee and the Homeless Advocacy Project joined forces to convince City Council to amend the City Code to waive the real estate transfer tax for nonprofit groups that wanted to obtain abandoned properties from the City and renovate them for community uses. The Dechert firm partnered with Community Legal Services to preserve the fifty-dollar child support "pass through" for mothers in the wake of welfare reform legislation. On the national level, the ACLU and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP partnered in drafting a key amicus curiae brief challenging portions of the Communication Decency Act, resulting in a determination by the U.S. Supreme Court that those provisions were an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights. During the past ten years, nearly every major firm has partnered with the city's public interest law centers in impact litigation of some kind.

Current Agenda
As the Public Interest Section moves into its second decade, it remains committed to ensuring that victims of poverty, abuse and discrimination receive access to justice. Various groups within the Section are working to bring about improvements in areas of concern to the city as a whole: court reform, neighborhood renewal, immigration issues and public assistance issues.

Several public interest organizations, along with other community groups, are collaborating on an effort to preserve affordable housing and prevent the vacancies that lead to urban blight in Philadelphia. This "HomeSMART" (Start Managing Assets, Repairs, and Title to property) effort involves training housing counselors and other community service providers about the resources available to low-income homeowners to help them remain in their homes and to ease the transfer of property from one owner to the next. The program includes funds to cover expenses, such as filing fees and records searches, so that pro bono attorneys can help low-income homeowners obtain legal title to their homes, thereby qualifying them for myriad services and benefits.

In the courts, the Public Interest and Family Law sections have worked with the Family Court Division to ensure that courtrooms in its Domestic Relations branch are open to the public. The Public Interest Section is working with other sections of the Bar Association, court administration and others to increase the allocation of resources for the Dependency Branch, where cases involving child abuse and neglect are heard.

This spring, the Philadelphia Bar Foundation convened a meeting of public interest organizations, private attorneys and funders to address the problem of children seeking asylum who are detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The American Bar Association has launched a Detained Immigrant and Refugee Children's Emergency Pro Bono Representation Initiative to encourage pro bono representation for these children. With its wealth of expertise in the area of immigration legal services, and its commitment to public service, the Philadelphia legal community, spearheaded by the Public Interest Section, can emerge as a leader in this endeavor.

Looking to the Future
Despite much success in building partnerships to provide access to justice for Philadelphia's needy, the Public Interest Section has much more work to do. Every day, hundreds of individuals go to court unrepresented, are denied government benefits to which they may be entitled, or risk losing their home simply because they do not have access to a lawyer. There is little doubt that to address these problems, increased funding for nonprofit public interest centers and increased pro bono participation on the part of private attorneys are essential. Both are important; public interest organizations can provide expertise when necessary and can engage in community outreach and advocacy, while volunteer attorneys from the private bar can assist in relieving the extraordinarily high caseloads at the various organizations.

On the occasion of its tenth anniversary, the Public Interest Section, with the help of the Bar Association, intends to ratchet up its efforts in these and other areas. For example, the Section is sponsoring a series of events such as Chancellor's Forums to educate local attorneys about issues affecting the poor. Former Chancellor Robert Heim is initiating a bar-wide effort to further expand Philadelphia's commitment to pro bono service. Numerous publications are showcasing the work of the Section. At each Quarterly Luncheon this year, the Bar Association is honoring volunteer lawyers representing all categories of pro bono service.

The Section will formally celebrate its tenth anniversary at its annual dinner later this year. As it has in prior years, the Section will present its Andrew Hamilton Award for distinguished service in public interest law. At the dinner, the Section also plans to announce several initiatives challenging the legal community to reach more broadly in providing legal services to Philadelphia's neediest citizens.