In 1970, a group of progressive Washington, DC attorneys ran a campaign to oppose President Nixon’s nomination of Harold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court. The campaign spawned thousands of letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a few months later the nomination was defeated. Encouraged by their success in defeating Judge Carswell’s nomination, these lawyers founded Washington Council of Lawyers in 1971.
1970s: The Early Years
One of the first successful events after our founding was the 1972 Counter Law Day Luncheon. The DC Bar Association had selected Robert Mardian, Assistant Attorney General for Internal Security under President Richard Nixon, to speak at its luncheon. Our counter-luncheon featured former Senator Harold Hughes, who spoke about the Nixon-era Justice Department’s disregard for civil liberties and freedom. Attendees at our counter-luncheon outnumbered those at the Mardian talk by roughly three to one.
We continued to press for reforms of the DC Bar. Before 1972, the DC Bar Association was voluntary and conservative. It failed to emphasize lawyers’ ethical obligations to do pro bono work. In 1972, the DC Bar Association became mandatory and unified. We developed a slate of candidates that was elected to the leadership of the new DC Bar Board of Governors by a landslide. The new, unified DC Bar shared our desire to promote public-interest law as means of ensuring access to justice and serving those in need.
Though the DC Bar changed significantly in the early 1970s, we did not stop fighting for social justice. Throughout the decade, we ran successful task forces on welfare, housing, equality in employment, and women’s rights. In 1976, we spearheaded a Retired Attorney Project, which facilitated the participation of retired attorneys in public service and legal programs. And in 1978, we launched our Public Interest and Pro Bono Forum. This annual event provides an opportunity for summer associates, law clerks, and interns to learn how they can pursue a public-interest career or incorporate pro bono work into their practice when they begin their professional careers.
We also focused on justice abroad. In 1974, we co-sponsored a trip to South Africa to address human rights issues. In Johannesburg, our members pressed for human rights improvements, and we later met with lawyers and judges in Kenya and Tanzania. In 1978, we sponsored one of the first trips to Cuba available to the American public. During the trip, our members met with Cuban officials to discuss human rights and the relationship between Cuba and the United States.
1980s: A Renewed Focus on Reform
As we transitioned into the 1980s, we further established ourselves as a respected, progressive bar association, and we confronted new threats to social justice. In 1982, we issued a study on the activities of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, concluding that the Reagan Administration had retreated on Civil Rights. In 1983, we conducted a national study of legal services programs to determine the impact of the reduction in funding on the programs’ ability to deliver legal services. And in 1984, we participated in the DC Statehood Campaign.
As the decade progressed, we continued to play an active role on issues of public policy. In 1987, we completed the Project on EEO Administrative Process and a representative testified about the report before the House Employment and Training Subcommittee. In 1989, we formed the Special Committee for Iran-Contra and Watergate Reform, in order to highlight the need for more accountability among government officials. Our committee sent a questionnaire to over 900 candidates for political office which asked each candidate about eight specific reform proposals that addressed these issues. The results showed bipartisan support for the reform proposals.
1990s: Confronting Changes in the Legal Profession
As we entered our third decade, we confronted changes in the legal profession that were taking a toll on lawyers’ ability or willingness to engage in public service. In 1990, we published the results of a survey regarding law firm pro bono work in DC. We found that changes in the business climate were creating an inhospitable environment for attorneys seeking to do pro bono work, and suggested a number of ways for firms to fix this problem. The study rallied firm attorneys to do more pro bono work.
In addition, the Director of the Federal Office of Personal Management initiated a new federal policy significantly relaxing the prohibitions on pro bono work by federal lawyers and encouraged all federal agencies to make pro bono activities more accessible to all federal employees.
During the 1990s, we also ran the Death Penalty Representation Project, the country’s first program designed to recruit and train lawyers from smaller practice settings to handle post-conviction matters for death-row inmates. And we helped parents who wished to adopt children to overcome the legal barriers associated with the D.C. Superior Court’s adoption procedures.
In 1996, we began a Mock Trial Program in DC elementary schools. Our volunteers assisted students at Washington D.C.’s Garrison Elementary School to put on a trial and be a lawyer for a day. While working with lawyers and others preparing for the trial, the students gained a first-hand appreciation of the role of law in their everyday lives.
Finally, in the 90s we began our Going Public program—to educate lawyers interested in transitioning into careers in public service. And we continued to survey and evaluate evaluating large D.C. firm pro bono programs.
The 2000s: Expanding Our Role
As we entered the 21st century, we launched and expanded an array of initiatives and programs. In 2001, we held our first annual awards ceremony and presented our Presidents’ Award to our own Linda Perle. “I was so very honored to be the first recipient of the Presidents’ Award,“ Linda said. ”Rather than honoring me, I always thought [we were] really honoring the legal services community, since I had worked to represent that community for most of my professional career.”
In 2003, we presented our first Government Pro Bono Awards to the Department of Transportation Pro Bono Services Committee and Claire McGwire, Counsel at the FDIC. The new award was designed to recognize and encourage government agencies and government attorneys dedicated to pro-bono service.
In 2004, we held our first Associate Pro Bono Forum, designed to assist law firm associates interested in pro bono work. In 2005, we launched our Mentoring Program and held our first skills training for attorneys interested in public-interest law. And in 2010, we launched our Going Government event, which advised lawyers about how they could transition to working for the government in tough economic times.
2011-present: Forty Years and Counting…
In 2011, we celebrated our 40th anniversary. We are still going strong.
In 2012, we published our Report on Legal Services Funding. The study showed that funding to legal aid programs has plummeted, while the demand for those services is at an all-time high. The report also called on lawmakers to protect legal aid programs.
In 2013, we began coordinating DC Pro Bono Week, part of the ABA’s National Pro Bono Celebration. This week-long series of events is held every fall to promote pro bono work in the District of Columbia.
We have expanded our efforts to serve others, bring lawyers together, and mentor and train the next generation of public-interest lawyers. We now volunteer at legal clinics, talk pro-bono best practices over breakfast, and help law students find rewarding fellowships. We continue to endorse candidates for DC Bar leadership and support public-interest minded attorneys who are pursuing judicial nominations. And we have reinforced our broader focus on poverty and access to justice, through new initiatives like East of the River Profiles and our annual Poverty Simulation.
In the words of our former President Katia Garrett, “A hallmark of [Washington Council of Lawyers] is its ability to react quickly to issues that threaten access to justice, and its capacity to stand up, again and again, to make people aware of issues affecting access to justice, and to encourage lawyers to recognize and act upon their obligation to serve their communities.” We hope to continue to serve this role for years and decades to come.