Last Wednesday night, Legal Aid celebrated its 26th Annual Servant of Justice Awards Dinner. More than 600 lawyers, judges, government officials, and friends and supporters of Legal Aid were in attendance. And the event raised more than one million dollars to support Legal Aid’s work on behalf of persons living in poverty in the District!
Graeme Bush of Zuckerman Spaeder and Dionne Lomax of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo served as the evening’s co-chairs. Board President Dan Jarcho of McKenna Long & Aldridge kicked off the evening with a warm welcome, offering thanks to everyone for their support of Legal Aid. Dionne expressed gratitude to all the many dignitaries and supporters of Legal Aid who are so critical to our ability to make justice real for our client community.
The first recognition of the evening went to Klepper Award Recipient Dan Russell. Arlene Klepper bestowed the award on Dan. In her introductory remarks, she noted that during his time serving as Chair of the Pro Bono Committee in McKenna Long & Aldridge’s DC office, Dan placed and handled cases in all of Legal Aid’s issue areas, saying “yes” to pretty much every pro bono request from Legal Aid. In a poignant acceptance speech, Dan noted:
We work in a city where there are an overwhelming number of people who are living in dire need of legal aid. As lawyers in DC, we have a unique ability to help others, to make a significant and lasting impact on their lives -- we have the opportunity to “make justice real,” as Legal Aid says. That opportunity is actually very easy to take advantage of: you can write a check, you can give your time, you can get involved with any number of terrific organizations in this city. Everyone sitting in this room tonight has that opportunity.
Legal Aid President Dan Jarcho then talked about various ways to get involved at Legal Aid, including the Generous Associates Campaign. Dan announced that the Honorary Chair for this year’s Campaign, which kicks off June 1st, is former Obama White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler of Latham & Watkins. The Generous Associates Campaign is a great way for public interest-oriented associates to help Legal Aid and also to feel a real sense of connection with other like-minded associates throughout DC. Dan also noted that the Campaign is called the Generous Associates Campaign because it is run by associates but that we are hoping for partners, counsel, paralegals, and administrative assistants to get involved too!
When discussing how important pro bono is to Legal Aid’s ability to expand its reach, Dan noted that last year, Legal Aid volunteers contributed more than 33,000 hours of pro bono service to Legal Aid, valued at more than $17 million. He then spoke about some of Legal Aid’s recognitions in the past year, including:
- Legal Director Chinh Le being recognized as among D.C.’s Rising Stars, for being one of 40 “game-changing lawyers age 40 and under”;
- Pro Bono Director Jodi Feldman being recognized by the Washington Council of Lawyers with its first ever Legal Services Award, for her extraordinary contributions to pro bono and access to justice;
- Legal Aid Supervising Attorney Julie Becker being nominated by President Barack Obama last week to serve as an Associate Judge on the D.C. Superior Court;
- Legal Aid receiving Charity Navigator’s highest four-star rating again in 2015; and
- The NonProfit Times naming Legal Aid the sixth “Best NonProfit To Work For” nationwide, with the highest ranking of any DC-based nonprofit.
Dan then introduced Executive Director Eric Angel, who spoke about the importance of Legal Aid’s mission and work. He began by noting how critical Legal Aid’s work is, given the District’s income inequality crisis. As Eric noted, the last time the DC Fiscal Policy Institute crunched the census figures, it found that the District had the fourth worst income inequality of the top 50 American cities, with the average income of the top 5% of DC households well over $500,000 a year, while the average income of the bottom 20% is less than $10,000.
Eric talked about Legal Aid’s systemic and individual work, and in particular about Carolyn Best. Ms. Best is a survivor of domestic violence; with an experienced Legal Aid lawyer by her side, she got to safety and received the custody order she needed. After dinner, Eric introduced Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who described Legal Aid as “indispensible” to the District’s well-being. She introduced Servant of Justice Award Winner Wade Henderson, speaking with passion of the changes she and Wade had experienced during their decades in the District.
Wade Henderson thanked Legal Aid for all it does for Washingtonians. He ended with a moving reminiscence of all he had seen and experienced in DC:
When I was born in the old Freedman’s Hospital, on Howard University’s campus, the city’s hospitals were segregated along racial lines by law. That is no longer the case. LeDroit Park, where I grew up and where I now own a home, was once an all-black neighborhood by law and by custom. Today, people of all races and from all around the world live in the area. Gone, too, is the legalized system of separate schooling that sent me to an all black elementary school, despite the fact that I started grade school after the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education had officially outlawed racial segregation. Yet one thing still has yet to change . . . we still have no voice in Congress.
Finally, Eric introduced Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation and a former Managing Partner of Arnold & Porter. Jim spoke touchingly of how deserving Servant of Justice Award Winner Phil Horton was of Legal Aid’s highest honor. Memorably, Jim noted that one of Phil’s favorite quotes is from Albert Schweitzer, who said, “No one has the right to take for granted his advantages over others in health, in talents, in ability, in success, in a happy childhood or congenial home conditions. One must pay a price for all these boons. What one owes in return is a special responsibility for other lives.”
Phil Horton then told a rapt audience about how much his connection to Legal Aid means to him, and how proud he is of the long-time “Legal Aiders” whom he admires so much. Phil spoke about some of the most difficult cases he has handled, from an eviction he was unable to stop at the beginning of his career to a death penalty case in which his client was executed with Phil by his side. Phil held the audience spell-bound, as he quoted from Senator Bobby Kennedy’s speech in Cape Town:
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
As Phil left the podium, he was greeted warmly by Peter Edelman, Chair of the DC Access to Justice Commission. Peter worked as a Legislative Assistant to Senator Robert Kennedy from 1964-1968.
Dan Jarcho ended this special evening, thanking all those who were able to attend, or who sponsored the evening. He issued an invitation to those in attendance: we hope to see you next year on April 28, 2016 for the 27th Annual Servant of Justice Awards Dinner!