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.
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1980s: A Renewed Focus on Reform
1990s: Confronting Changes in the Legal Profession
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 were 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 a 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 Personnel 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 large law firm DC pro bono programs.
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 Award 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.
2010s: Unprecedented Growth
In our fifth decade, we experienced a growth in our ability to provide trainings, programming, and community-building. In 2011, we celebrated our 40th anniversary. In 2012, we published our Report on Legal Services Funding. The study showed that funding to legal aid programs had plummeted, while the demand for those services was 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. In 2014, we co-sponsored (along with the Constitution Project, the Innocence Project, and Steptoe and Johnson) a panel on the recent exoneration of Sabien Burgess, who had spent nearly twenty years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
By mid-decade, we had expanded our programming to again address direct systemic change. In 2015, we began our Racial Justice Series, where we focused on voter suppression, implicit bias, and recent events in Ferguson. We also kicked off our Looking into Low Bono series, which explored models for increasing access to justice to people of modest means. In 2016, we started a monthly Spanish Language Exchange program where lawyers could meet for an informal lunch to practice conversation skills and learn about legal services providers that do work for Spanish-speaking clients. In 2017, we had the privilege of having Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as our 2017 Summer Forum keynote speaker. In 2018, we held our first training for the Eviction Defense Cohort, which consisted of lawyers hired by organizations who were recipients of funds from the Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program Grants. There are currently 40 members of the Eviction Defense Cohort. The impact these lawyers have had in providing legal assistance to a large number of previously unrepresented families and individuals facing eviction is remarkable. In 2019, we hosted a conversation with Justice Elena Kagan and Dean William Treanor of Georgetown University Law Center.
2020 and Beyond
Beginning in early 2020, the world experienced a pandemic on an unprecedented scale. Long-simmering need for systemic reform was brought to the fore, and long-standing legal needs were exacerbated by the health emergency. The rapidly-changing landscape called upon the legal community to pivot overnight to remote representation and host of novel legal needs.
Washington Council of Lawyers rose to the challenge with our first-ever virtual Summer Forum, which had a record-setting 400 total registrants and doubles the number of usual attendees at each of our five breakout panels and a keynote address by Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby. Our other programs and trainings followed suit on virtual platforms with an expanded reach.
In June of our 50th Anniversary year, we were honored to be named the D.C. Bar’s Voluntary Bar Association of the Year in recognition of our exemplary service to our members, the legal profession, and the District of Columbia pro bono and public-interest community through programming, community outreach, special initiatives, and professional activities.
We continue our efforts to serve others, bring lawyers together, and mentor and train the next generation of public-interest lawyers. We 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 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 in this role for decades to come.