The Path Forward


By Leslie E. John, Partner at Ballard Spahr and President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.

Thinking back to 2020, many of us will think of the changes to our lives brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Many have lost family and friends, found themselves sickened, or suffered loss of income and changes to our ways of living, working and socializing. Many of us will think of the racial justice movement that has brought with it an imperative to move forward, despite the pain that an examination of systemic racism brings. 

As President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation for the past two years, I am proud that our Foundation rose to the challenge, providing over $250,000 in early emergency grants this year to help keep our legal service organizations focusing on providing civil legal aid to those most in need.  But I am also aware of the work that lies ahead to continue to raise the funds that those organization must have to address the unmet needs for civil legal aid while starting an examination of how we as a Foundation can through our own work operate in an anti-racist way and further racial justice and equity.

My grandfather immigrated to this country from Canton in 1900, seeking new opportunities.  He adopted an anglicized name and met and married a white woman from Kansas.  They eventually settled in Oklahoma City, where my grandfather operated a Chinese restaurant.  Despite the struggles, they provided for their three children, and my father, having fought in World War II, had the opportunity to go to college on the GI bill.  I feel very fortunate, yet I worry that future generations will not have the opportunities that my family and I have had, and that the kinds of prejudices my family experienced have become enflamed rather than being relegated to history. 

I am committed to the work that the Philadelphia Bar Foundation has embarked upon with our nonprofit partners to examine racial justice and equity. We seek to clarify the Foundation’s theory of change by applying an anti-racist lens and identifying explicit considerations and criteria that the Board of Trustees should apply when making decisions about its various activities. I also am excited about the projects underway at the Foundation to be a change agent — through the innovative use of technology to better connect our legal service organizations, a legal incubator project to bring low bono services to those who need low-cost legal aid, and the exploration of mobile units to place access to legal services in the neighborhoods. 

As I reflect back on the past two years, I am grateful for all of the efforts of the Trustees of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation who worked both to raise funds and to keep the initiatives of the Foundation moving forward. So many Trustees gave selflessly of their time. I am humbled by the efforts of our staff at the Foundation. Led by our Executive Director, Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, and our Director of Development and Communications, Laura Powers, they figured out ways to pivot despite a year of unprecedented challenges. They kept their eyes on what matters most — seeking to secure funding for legal services organizations that keep people in their homes, fight for access to education, defend basic human rights to be free from discrimination and so much more, while striving to find innovative ways to make that funding go further. The spirit exhibited by each member of the staff fills me with hope that the path forward will indeed bring opportunities for all.

Please join us. You can visit to learn more about the work of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation and ways that you can contribute. Please consider an end of the year donation. Your support and generosity will make a difference.