Washington Lawyer

Meet the President: Andrea Ferster

From Washington Lawyer, June 2013

By Thai Phi Le


On June 18, 2013, Andrea Ferster will begin her term as the 42nd president of the D.C. Bar. For more than two decades, Ferster has run her own law practice, Andrea C. Ferster Law Office, which specializes in litigation and advocacy to enforce environmental and historic preservation laws, and also represents nonprofit organizations on tax and corporate issues. She also serves as general counsel for Rails–to–Trails Conservancy.  

Step into Ferster’s office, which she shares with Rails-to-Trails, and you’re greeted with a large mural depicting a beautiful city trail. Personal bicycles line the walls—a fitting atmosphere for a native Washingtonian who makes her way through the streets and neighborhoods of the District by bike, bus, Metro, or her own two feet, which are often clad in running shoes.

She’s been fortunate to make “my avocation my vocation,” as she says, devoting her career to public interest work as well as historic preservation, land use, and transportation policy. Prior to becoming a solo practitioner, Ferster worked at the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an assistant general counsel and at Harmon & Weiss (now Harmon, Curran, Eisenberg and Spielberg) as an associate.

Before serving as president–elect of the Bar, Ferster was treasurer of the D.C. Bar Board of Governors for the 2010–2011 term, and was elected to the Board of Governors in 2011. She served on the Bar’s Practice Management Service Committee from 2007 to 2012. She also is a member of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, the Washington Bar Association, the Washington Council of Lawyers, and the Women’s Bar Association. In addition, Ferster has worked throughout the community, previously serving on the National Governing Board of Common Cause, and as trustee for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City. In 2009 she received the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board Chairman’s Award for Excellence in Law and Public Policy.

Ferster received her bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College and graduated from The George Washington University Law School.

Can you tell me about your upbringing? I know you are a native Washingtonian.
There was a bit of family instability in my early childhood. It included a period when my three brothers and I were removed from our home and spent several months in a children’s shelter in Fulton County, Georgia. I was six years old when we were sent back to D.C. to live with my father and stepmother.

How has your early childhood experience impacted your life?
The experience of being in shelter care was formative in a couple of ways. In a more general way, it probably influenced my decision to choose a public interest career. It was important to me that people who are vulnerable have a voice when decisions are made that affect their home, their families, and their quality of life.

I became more specifically aware of how formative that experience was later on as a lawyer, when I represented children and families who were in the abuse and neglect system. It made me painfully aware of the very difficult choices that judges, lawyers, and social workers face when they’re trying to balance the need to remove a child from a situation that may not be safe, while knowing that the removal itself will inflict a secondary trauma on the child that will have a lasting effect as well.

Describe what it was like growing up here in the District of Columbia.
D.C. was a wonderful place to grow up in. We spent our weekends in museums and our summers on the National Mall for the Folklife Festival. My parents allowed us a lot of freedom. It was pre-Metro[rail] then, but we got around just fine with bicycles and buses.

My father was a behavioral psychologist who worked with B. F. Skinner—and my older brother and I were so-called “Skinner Box” babies. My stepmother was a law professor. They both died young many years ago. I still miss them.

The other aspect of my childhood that was probably the most formative was attending D.C. Public Schools. That was something that changed me in a way that has affected the career decisions and career path that I ended up taking.

Why do you say that?
I attended one of the most diverse high schools in D.C., Woodrow Wilson High School, which my children also attended. I don’t think I’ve been in a situation with that level of diversity, except in the D.C. Bar. In the D.C. Public Schools, the education is there, but you have to find it yourself. I was allowed to make my own choices at Wilson High School.

What were some of the choices you made?
I made some unconventional decisions, but they were good choices for me. I skipped my senior year in high school, and instead of taking a traditional college–centered curriculum, I attended a literary arts program near McKinley [Technology High School] in Northeast Washington for half of the day, where I wrote a book of poetry that was published by the D.C. Public Schools. When it came time to apply to college, I did not have the academic courses or other experiences that one would normally have when applying for college. I applied to only one college—Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York—but, fortunately, I was accepted.

Can you describe your college experience?
I had a really wonderful college experience. Like D.C. Public Schools, Sarah Lawrence was an environment that encouraged unconventional choices. I didn’t pursue a curriculum in college that in any way remotely resembled a career that I could actually support myself on. I studied dance, poetry, literature, anthropology, international relations, and psychology—in short, a liberal arts education, but without the math and science.

You’ve had such a wide variety of courses in college. What was your favorite?
I had a lot of great courses, but my favorite was one on 19th century literature, which is a period that’s incredibly rich. Jane Austen, [Charles] Dickens.

You took all these different classes at Sarah Lawrence. What drew you then to law?
Probably as a result of my early childhood experiences, I had a sense—perhaps it was an overly romanticized sense—that lawyers were agents of social change.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. I had read Gideon’s Trumpet when I was younger. That was an influential book for me when I was making that decision to pursue law as a career.

I’ve also had some tremendous role models. The first and most important role model was my stepmother Elyce Zenoff. She was a civil rights lawyer who worked on the Hill during the time that the civil rights legislation for the mentally ill was being considered. After that, she became the first woman law professor at The George Washington University Law School.

My very beloved great-aunt Esther Rothstein was the first woman president of the Chicago Bar Association. She later received the Margaret Brent [Women Lawyers Achievement] Award from the American Bar Association. Both of those women were really important role models.

Later, between college and law school, I worked at the League of Women Voters Education Fund. There I found two more role models—Cynthia Hill [currently D.C. Bar chief programs officer] and Maureen Syracuse [former D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program executive director]. They were working on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was up for reauthorization. Cynthia and Maureen were very much involved in documenting the continued need for civil rights protections for voting rights. Seeing the really important and effective advocacy that they did made me want to do what they were doing.

What brought you back to Washington after college? Did you have a job?
No, of course not. [Laughs] There was no question in my mind that I was going back to D.C. because it’s a great place to live and it is my hometown.

I eventually found work at the League of Women Voters Voters/Service Office. That was from 1979 to 1981, when the league was involved in sponsoring the presidential debates. Voting rights were and still are an issue that’s really important to me as a D.C. resident since we have no voting representation in Congress. Then I went to law school.

What were some of the jobs you held after law school?
I did not find a job immediately after I graduated from law school. I was not interested in working for a private law firm, so I spent the first nine months after I graduated putting together odd jobs between one thing and another. One part-time job was working with Cynthia Hill at the League of Women Voters Education Fund on a voting rights project.

I eventually did find a job that I considered my dream job—at a small public interest law firm called Harmon & Weiss. I was very happy that I waited. I worked with Gail Harmon, who is an extraordinary lawyer to nonprofit organizations and an important mentor to me.

While at the firm, I was also able to develop my own litigation practice, focusing on causes that I was interested in. One of my first lawsuits was representing the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign, which had been challenged by the beverage industry. The initiative did not pass, but the D.C. Council fortunately passed a comprehensive recycling law. I also represented D.C. Common Cause in a successful lawsuit challenging then-Mayor [Marion] Barry’s efforts to defeat an initiative on the ballot guaranteeing overnight shelter for homeless persons. I worked on my first historic preservation case there, representing an East Capitol Hill neighborhood in a battle challenging the demolition of the historic Gallinger Hospital as part of the siting of the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility, and found a practice niche in preservation law.

The firm offered me partnership, but instead I decided to join the staff at the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a litigation attorney.

Why did you choose to become a solo practitioner?
It was a complicated decision. At that time, I was working at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That was also a really valuable experience, and through it I gained a lifelong colleague and friend in Deputy General Counsel Betsy Merritt, who I still work very closely with. But when you work for that kind of nonprofit organization, you’re really representing a cause. I discovered that I preferred representing people.

I also wanted to be able to choose my own clients and define my own work. That is a sort of typical D.C. Public School character trait—wanting to find your own way and define it yourself. I wanted to be able to take on a “lost cause” because it was important to my client, or take on a case pro bono if I felt like it.

Then the opportunity came along to become general counsel for the Rails–to–Trails Conservancy and to build my own law practice. The Rails–to–Trails Conservancy has been my client now for 21 years, and I do really interesting legal work for them on issues that I care a lot about. Having that stable client really made a difference and helped me to move into a solo practice and develop my own law practice.

Was there any time in the early phases of being a solo practitioner that you said, “Oh, my, what did I do?”
Yes, when I was pregnant with my second child and I was talking to my insurance agent who was trying to sell me disability insurance. She said, “What happens if you have to go on pregnancy bed rest?” I just looked at her and said, “That cannot happen.” Luckily, everything worked out well with having my second child. No bed rest and I was back to work pretty quickly.

Why are conservancy and preservation so important to you?
It’s nice to have a vocation that matches your avocation. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy does wonderful work as an organization. Every time I mention it, people’s eyes light up and they tell me about how much they enjoy biking on the Capital Crescent Trail or other rail–trails in the D.C. area. I’m a person who very much relies on active transportation for my mobility. I don’t own a car. I get around with bikes and feet and buses and occasional rentals.

My other work involves representing opponents of environmentally destructive projects or projects that are damaging to historic properties. For example, here in D.C. I represented a number of organizations that were opposed to the destruction of the Rainbow Pool as part of the construction of the National World War II Memorial on the great cross-axis of the National Mall. Congress eventually passed a law preempting our lawsuit. D.C.’s historic buildings and sites give us a sense of place in this community, and protecting them from destruction or damage is important. At the same time, working to build trails, which are an environmentally beneficial community amenity, provides a great balance to that work.

When did you become more active in the D.C. Bar?
In 2007 I was given an opportunity to join the Practice Management Service Committee. I found it to be a really valuable experience. First of all, as a solo practitioner, you spend too much time alone. The Bar is an incredible place to get out and meet your colleagues, meet other lawyers, bounce ideas off of other people, and get a lot of good information.

All the D.C. Bar committees and the sections offer that balance of opportunities both to learn and to contribute. During the past few years, I also have become more aware of the opportunities provided by D.C.’s voluntary bar associations to meet interesting people and to learn more about the issues facing our profession and our community, and I have benefited from my membership in many of these organizations.

The D.C. Bar launched its Leadership Academy this year in an effort to get members involved in the Bar early on. Why do you think that’s so important?
Certainly it is important for the Bar to have a way of identifying and nurturing people who will hopefully assume leadership roles within our organization. The Leadership Academy creates a path to those leadership opportunities.

It’s also a tremendous opportunity for the lawyers. Personally, the leadership training that we have received as Bar leaders has given me tools to be more effective in my work with clients, in my conversations and interactions with other lawyers, in my community where I serve on boards or work with different community groups, and even in my own family. Lawyers who attend the Leadership Academy will find that the training they receive is beneficial in every aspect of their lives, including hopefully their lives as future Bar leaders.

Over the next year, what will your priorities be as Bar president?
My highest priority will be making sure that the Bar’s Pro Bono Program continues to be successful, continues to be sustaining and growing in terms of both its funding and its access to pro bono resources from the legal community. I also want to support the larger civil legal services provider community by exploring new ways to address the access to justice gap that exists in D.C. The need continues to be great and the resources continue to be too limited.

The other issue that we as a legal community are facing and beginning to grapple with is our increasing number of underemployed and unemployed lawyers, particularly new graduates. The Bar has incredible programs to help those lawyers who are forming their own law practices to do that through [its] Practice Management Advisory Service’s “Basic Training” courses, its confidential legal ethics advisors, and its award–winning Continuing Legal Education Program. I will continue to support and promote these programs.

It is important that our members are aware of all the resources the Bar makes available to lawyers to help them manage their law practices in a way that keeps them both ethically compliant and successful. That’s going to be really important during my presidency, given the growing number of lawyers who are looking to form their own law practice at this time.

Can you tell me about your interest in “low bono,” the difficulty that people of modest means face in obtaining legal services?
I am very interested in this topic. It focuses on two problems facing the legal community that have the potential to help solve each other. On the one hand, we have the problem in the legal community of reduced job opportunities for recent law graduates and large numbers of underemployed and unemployed lawyers. On the other hand, our community needs lawyers more than ever. It is estimated that the majority of litigants in some of the Superior Court divisions, such as family court and landlord and tenant court, appear pro se. This is a huge problem that denies access to justice and undermines the efficiency of our justice system for the court and for represented parties as well.

Our civil legal services provider community is focused, as it should be, on the client base that makes less than 200 percent of the poverty level. That’s the client base that the Pro Bono Program serves and whose needs we cannot even fully meet.

During my year as Bar president, I’m going to start a community–wide conversation on ways in which these two problems can solve each other. And the solution is to figure out innovative ways to connect these clients who are looking for lawyers with trained lawyers who are willing, interested, and able to provide “low bono” legal services.

This is an issue that the Bar cannot solve by itself. So we’re going to try and bring together all the various stakeholders in our legal community who have an interest in exploring possible solutions to this problem. These stakeholders include the law schools, which are concerned about their graduates’ employment opportunities, and the voluntary bars, many of whom have members who are in private practice and would be very interested in more opportunities to connect with clients even on a low bono basis. Legal services providers have an interest in this issue because it will add to new pro bono lawyers who will be encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities to be trained to take on pro bono cases. And all lawyers will benefit by having a place to send individuals of modest means with serious legal needs who can’t afford market fees, but who don’t qualify for legal services. So stay tuned.

What experiences can you draw on as a solo practitioner to help you lead the Bar?
I do tend to look at many issues in a way that’s different from the way lawyers who are not also responsible for the business side of their law practices look at some of these issues. I hope that will be useful.

I’m hopeful that my status as a solo practitioner will be helpful in providing new opportunities for solo practitioners to become involved in the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. It’s important that the opportunities to contribute to the Pro Bono Program be available to all lawyers in the Bar. Solo practitioners offer incredibly valuable areas of expertise that the Pro Bono Program would benefit from, and the Pro Bono Program offers service and training opportunities that are beneficial for solo practitioners.

Solo and unaffiliated lawyers do have some unique issues in doing pro bonowork. I’m looking forward to sharing that perspective in the leadership role so that the Bar can be responsive to those issues.

What do you do to decompress?
I’m a runner. Although to say that I do that to decompress would be like saying I eat or I breathe to decompress. Running every day, if I can, is really important to my physical and mental health.

To decompress, I go dancing just about every weekend at Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County, [Maryland]. I’ll try just about any dance they offer: swing, ballroom, salsa, waltz, contra, and square dancing, Cajun. You name it, I’ll try it.