The Inspiring Aspirations of Philadelphia's Legal Community


By Thomas A. Brophy, president emeritus at Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C., and president of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.

I will be stepping down as President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation on December 31, 2018, having completed my two-year tenure in the position. My presidency follows a previous eight years serving on the Board of the Foundation in various capacities. Completing one's tenure in any role whether it be as President of a law firm or as President of a nonprofit foundation prompts one to conduct some retrospection.

I have found my time serving as a Trustee of the Bar Foundation and as its President inspiring, rewarding, and, at times, disappointing. As lawyers working in Center City in a skilled, respected, and lucrative profession, it is easy to forget that Philadelphia is the poorest large city in the country, that its poverty is multi-generational, and that its poverty deprives too many of the city's residents of a genuine opportunity to succeed, especially those unable to respond to or navigate the legal system.

What is inspiring is the quality of the public interest Bar and the various nonprofits who look to assist the city's poorest inhabitants to find access to the legal services that they desperately need. During my tenure I've learned that the public interest Bar in Philadelphia is large, multi-faceted, talented, and does exceptional things with limited resources.

Meeting those persons whose needs are served by the public interest legal community is empowering. The more one is exposed to these people, whether they are clients of Community Legal Services, of HIAS, of the Support Center for Child Advocates, of the Legal Clinic for the Disabled, of the AIDS Law Project or of one of the other legal service organizations supported by the Bar Foundation, the more one realizes that these people have the same goals as all of us. What they have in common with us is the desire to improve their circumstances and the circumstances of their families.

Seeing the impact that access to legal services has on their ability to more fully participate as citizens or residents of Philadelphia is rewarding. Those who have studied the need for legal services know that those who need legal services but are unable to find them, find their lives compromised in multiple ways. An inability to find adequate housing impacts educational opportunities for one's children. An inability to obtain healthcare compromises one's ability to work. Fear of deportation discourages residents who are entitled to public services from seeking them.

Yet many people diligently pursue help from legal service organizations to improve their lives and are so grateful when their legal needs can be met by one of the public interest law firms.

One of the primary functions of the President of the Bar Foundation is to lead the Foundation's efforts in fundraising. What is disappointing is the difficulty in generating adequate resources for the organizations providing legal services for the needy. Over the last ten years, the Bar Foundation has contributed more than $5 million dollars to the various legal service organizations it supports. However, that $5 million dollars is inadequate.

In Philadelphia alone, there are more than 10,000 lawyers. A significant number of those lawyers contribute neither time nor money to enhance the ability of the legal service organizations to provide legal aid to the indigent. The legal community as a whole provides significant support for these organizations but too often it is the "usual suspects” who provide the support while many lawyers contribute little or nothing.

Thus, the Bar Foundation and the legal service organizations themselves are forced to work very hard to raise money to sustain their efforts. Historically, the Bar Foundation has generated money for grants and for its endowment through events (a golf outing and an Access to Justice Benefit), through individual giving, and through institutional giving. The events utilized by the Bar Foundation to raise money have gotten increasingly more expensive and, with the number of organizations holding such events, have become increasingly more competitive. Therefore, this past year we moved to a "Unified Giving" initiative. Under that initiative, law firms pledge to contribute a certain amount of money to the Bar Foundation; and that donation is not dependent on any kind of event taking place. The goal of the Unified Giving initiative is to make law firm support predictable, consistent and inexpensive with the ultimate goal of raising more money for the Foundation’s annual grants to legal service organizations by reducing or even eliminating the costs associated with events. We had our first such event on November 8, 2018 at the Crystal Tea Room. This year's Unified Giving initiative will serve as a base line on which the Foundation can build over the next few years.

Hopefully most of you are familiar, at least in concept, with the Equal Justice Center. The Bar Foundation is spearheading the construction of a building at 8th and Vine which would house a significant number of the legal service organizations providing legal aid to the needy. Rents for the legal service organizations in the building would be stabilized and would be below market thus enabling the organizations to control their costs. Additionally, they may share a common client intake system, back office support, IT, and conference rooms, maintaining or reducing costs and enhancing their facilities. Housing these legal service organizations in one location will facilitate access to those legal services by their clients. Ultimately, the Equal Justice Center will become the first place to go for anyone who is in need of free or low-cost legal assistance.

Next year, 2019, will be an exciting time for the Bar Foundation as we expect to break ground on the construction of the Equal Justice Center. Leslie John from Ballard Spahr who has served for the last two years as Vice President of the Foundation will take over as President. The Foundation will be well served by her passion for the goals of the Foundation and by the leadership she will bring to the pursuit of those goals.

Finally, I would like to thank Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, Laura Powers, Paul Kirk, Cecelia Driscoll, Adrienne Brown and Katerina Krohn for their support and assistance over the last two years. I would also like to thank all of my fellow Board members for their contributions during my tenure and the many individuals, firms and businesses that continue to support the Bar Foundation. It has been a privilege to have worked with all of you. Thanks also to the Executive Directors of the thirty-nine legal service organizations supported by the Bar Foundation.  Seeing what you accomplish with the resources that you have and seeing your commitment to providing legal aid to those in the city who need it makes me proud to be a lawyer and renews my faith in my fellow human beings.