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Public Interest Lawyers Deserve More Credit

by Gerald A. McHugh Jr.

The legal press routinely celebrates the accomplishments of members of the bar, whether it is a noteworthy verdict, a lecture given, or professional honor bestowed. We are also quick to celebrate those members of the bar who perform volunteer service for the cause of equal justice.

What we as a profession fail to recognize, and appropriately honor, is the daily work of lawyers who have dedicated themselves to legal services and public interest practice. It is important to remember what distinguishes those who volunteer from those on the front lines. The analogy I have most often used is that the private bar is merely the stage crew. We provide the means to build the set and put on the play, but the contribution of even the most dedicated volunteer in private practice pales in comparison to the contribution made by public interest lawyers every day.

Nothing approaches the level of sacrifice and commitment of these lawyers. If you were to walk through the halls of Community Legal Services, you would find yourself surrounded by graduates of the leading law schools in the United States: Harvard, Yale, Penn, Stanford and Columbia, among others. You would be among lawyers who have won precedent-setting cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, defining the legal rights of millions of Americans. You would be among lawyers who are routinely asked to help shape public policy on many of the most important issues facing our society. Yet, in one of the great ironies of our culture, these extraordinarily skilled and valuable public servants are among the least well compensated. A first-year associate at a large firm earns more than the most senior attorney at Community Legal Services, and many of its lawyers work for less than the salary of an experienced legal secretary. Young lawyers working in legal services bear the same crushing debt as any other graduate, but with a fraction of the income to offset it, and moonlighting in non-legal jobs is not unheard of just to make ends meet.

This same story of sacrifice is played out across the city and commonwealth, where equally important work is being done. If you came to know the work of the Pennsylvania Health Law Project, you would learn that its attorneys drafted the Children’s Health Insurance Program of Pennsylvania (CHIP), which provided the means to give health care to hundreds of thousands of low-income children. If you studied the history of the Juvenile Law Center, you would learn that it established the right of every abused and neglected child to have counsel when his or her future is being decided. If you researched Friends of Farmworkers, you would learn that through its efforts, an historic contract was reached between the migrant workers and one of the largest mushroom producers in the United States. These examples of brilliant advocates protecting the rights of the poor can be cited throughout the public interest community, with PILCOP, the Support Center for Child Advocates, the Disabilities Law Project and others too numerous to mention, all for compensation that is modest at best by professional standards.

Viewed from this perspective, what we in the private bar are asked to do is nominal: invest a small fraction of our time, and donate a small fraction of our resources. We should remember and honor these lawyers, who represent the best of our profession. Your support of the Bar Foundation is a tangible expression of the value you place on their work.

Gerald A. McHugh Jr., a partner at Litvin, Blumberg, Matusow & Young, is president of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.

Copyright 2002, Philadelphia Bar Association. Used with permission.