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Endowment Fund Honors Past Bar President Tom Williamson

By Sarah Kellogg

December 16, 2019

WilliamsonTomCovington & Burling LLP and the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) have established the Tom Williamson Endowment Fund to commemorate their five decades-long trailblazing pro bono partnership and to honor a former D.C. Bar president’s pro bono legacy. Williamson, who passed away in February 2017 at the age of 70, was a partner at Covington and a member of the NLSP board of directors. He served as D.C. Bar president from 2012 to 2013.

The fund, launched in October, is dedicated to supporting NLSP in its mission to provide free legal services to low-income individuals and families in the District of Columbia.

“Tom Williamson was a great advocate for the NLSP,” says Timothy C. Hester, chair of Covington’s Management Committee. “It’s a fitting tribute to him that we named the endowment after him. Frankly, we lost him too early, so I think the endowment has a sense of coming full circle. We’re able to recognize his service at NLSP and his extraordinary contributions to this firm and the legal community.”

Covington, which provided the majority of the early financing, has a long history with NLSP. Fifty years ago they jointly established the first-of-its-kind loaned associate program, in which firm attorneys have a six-month rotation at NLSP; paralegals have one-year rotations. More than 220 Covington attorneys have served as rotating associates since the program began.

Williamson became one of those loaned associates in 1976, two years after graduating from Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California, Berkeley. After graduation, Williamson joined Covington and worked there most of his professional life, except for brief stints at NLSP and the federal government. Williamson served as deputy inspector general at the U.S. Department of Energy and as solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Tom was a quiet warrior for justice who embodied the highest ideals of our profession,” says Eric H. Holder Jr., former U.S. attorney general and a member of the fund’s Honorary Committee. “The endowment at NLSP is a fitting tribute to my friend for his lifelong commitment to pursuing justice and fairness for all.”

Karen Newton Cole, NLSP executive director, expects to raise $500,000 for the fund. After its inauguration in October, it had secured nearly $180,000 in commitments in less than two months. By establishing the endowment, NLSP hopes to more effectively guide its long-term legal strategy and resource planning.

“We envision the fund as a continuous resource for the NLSP,” says Newton Cole, noting that a policy statement will outline how the fund’s money can be spent. “Right now, we intend to use it primarily to bring on a legal director, a litigation and advocacy expert who can focus on the strategic direction of the organization while also managing our attorneys.”

Like most legal services providers, NLSP operates close to the bone, but that doesn’t diminish the need for its services — or the importance of solving the civil law conundrum, says Shankar Duraiswamy, a partner at Covington and a member of the NLSP board.

“We’re not yet at the point in our country where we have, as a matter of legal right, representation for civil matters, as opposed to criminal matters, even when those civil matters are as fundamental as being able to maintain your home and job,” says Duraiswamy. “Too often people are left without the representation they need, and that is where NLSP comes in.”

Covington considers pro bono work to be an essential component of any attorney’s practice, and even more so for the law firm. Covington’s commercial work has been thriving in the last fiscal year; so, too, has its pro bono program. In 2019, Covington attorneys clocked 126,062 hours of pro bono work.

“There is a well-established sense in the practice of law that pro bono is a moral obligation of lawyers to give back to the community,” says Alan A. Pemberton, a former NLSP rotating associate, senior counsel at the firm, and co-chair of its Public Service Committee. “We as lawyers have been greatly privileged to become lawyers, and the firm’s management has provided the resources to make sure that pro bono work flourishes at the firm.”

Ultimately, everyone involved with the fund believes that Williamson would have championed it with the same energy and enthusiasm he brought to his own pro bono work. Moreover, it will be a poignant reminder of the vitality of the partnership between NLSP and Covington, a partnership that dates back to that first rotating-associate class in 1969.

“The rotation program has just been really successful from all perspectives, for associates, the law firm, NLSP, and, most importantly, our clients,” says Newton Cole. “For 50 years, it’s been one of those experiences that ends up being a win-win for everyone.”