Lawyers who serve the needy Attorneys recognize obligation to do public-interest work

May 31, 1998|By COLMAN MCCARTHY

AT THE 40th reunion of Harvard Law School's class of 1958, held on a recent weekend in Boston, the expected displays of conventional success were on full and gilded view. These were senior partners at major corporate law firms, federal judges, old-hand loophole lawyers and fixers, and the settled and secure usually found in the novels of Louis Auchincloss.

That would have been it, except that this group had a collective achievement that went well beyond the soarings of any individual alumnus. On the homestretch of their professional lives, and after mastering the establishment skills of making partner and making money, they had opted for making waves by creating the Appleseed Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit now in its fifth year. Led by class members Ralph Nader, Prof. Arthur Miller and others, the Harvard alumni funded a nonprofit that organizes and supports public-interest law centers that work locally to address systemic areas of need.

With public opinion polls consistently rating lawyers at the lowest reaches of the public's regard - down there at the bottom with journalists, politicians and grifters - this was a moment that offered another view: lawyers as servants of the public, breakaways from the images of greed and power that dog the profession.

Since that 35th reunion at Harvard when the Appleseed Foundation was created, it has raised more than $1 million and generated thousands of pro bono hours. Six Appleseed public interest law centers operate in New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska and Texas, with programs developing in Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii and Louisiana.

Unlike the federal Legal Services program, which litigates and represents clients who can't afford the fees of for-profit law firms, Appleseed Centers, according to legal director Phyllis Hurwitz Marcus, work "to build a civic infrastructure that can create legal reforms to solve problems at the local level." Public policies that sanction fraud, waste and insider dealing are systematically confronted in communities.

These include challenging policy abuses rigged against legal immigrants, low-income families, employees in unsafe workplaces, elderly homeowners and others with limited power and little access to lawyers.

The turn toward public-interest law by the Harvard class of 1958 may be interpreted in one of two ways. It's touching that the alums from Harvard Law have made it to the top and are casting a kindly eye from their board rooms and clubrooms at those mired at the bottom. Or it is the latest sign that interest in public-interest law is spreading.

The former is speculation tinged with cynicism. The latter is based on optimism and seems closer to the mark, given the growth of the National Association of Public Interest Law (NAPIL). In 1986, students at 15 of America's 176 law schools stopped agonizing and began organizing. They formed NAPIL, a group that has made it possible to use the words "conscience" and "American law" in the same sentence and not invite eye-rolling.

In 12 years, it has expanded beyond early expectations to become a multiprogram organization with chapters at 144 of the American Bar Association-approved law schools. Students have shaken the money trees to win foundation grants, as well as raising funds through campus auctions. Dinners at the homes of professors and power lunches with big-foot lawyers have loosened wallets. These and other discreet hustles have brought in more than $15 million - enough to fund some 8,500 summer public-interest interships over the years.

NAPIL offers Fellowships for Equal Justice. These are 24-month stints that pay up to $32,000 a year - stoop laborer wages compared with the $80,000-and-up, first-year, come-on salaries at some corporate law firms. NAPIL also absorbs any tuition debt a Fellow might have during the two years.

This fall, 70 post-graduate fellowships will be started - up from 14 this year, a five-fold increase. Since 1992, 45 Fellows have served, after graduating from such law schools as those at Harvard, Georgetown and New York universities and at the University of Southern California. Current fellows are working among people the law mostly ignores or forgets: farm workers, juvenile detainees, the evicted homeless, Medicaid ineligibles and battered women.

George Soros, the New York philanthropist whose Open Society Institute ranks as one of the nation's most progressive grant-givers, is helping to fuel the growth of public-interest law. On Tuesday in Washington, Soros is expected to announce that the institute has earmarked $9 million to match law firm and corporate contributions to NAPIL. The campaign, called "Invest in Justice," will help to redress the 30 percent cut in the Legal Services program since 1995. Some 200 offices have been closed.

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