Washington Lawyer

From the President: Government Lawyers: 16,000 of the Bar's Finest

From Washington Lawyer, March 2011

By Ronald S. Flagg


We are a Bar devoted to public service. We have the finest group of legal services providers in the nation, and a pro bono culture that sets the standard for other communities. And, of course, our numerous colleagues working in government represent our greatest source of public service. More than 16,000 of our members work in federal, state, or local governments, and thousands more of us have done government service during our legal careers.

Indeed, many of us were drawn to Washington, D.C., to work in government, and, in so doing, work in the public interest. In recent times, however, all too often disagreement about the appropriate scope of government or the merits of particular government programs are misdirected as hostility toward government service or government workers. To my mind, this makes no sense. It is precisely when and where our country faces its greatest challenges that we require our ablest citizens to step forward for government service. In an address in 1963, at a time when, like today, there was a pervasive feeling that America was falling behind, President John F. Kennedy invited graduating college students to meet this challenge:

You will find the pressures greater than the pay. You may endure more public attacks than support. But you will have the unequaled satisfaction of knowing that your character and talent are contributing to the direction and success of this free society.

To recognize the substantial contribution made by all our members serving in government, the D.C. Bar annually bestows the Beatrice Rosenberg Award on one of our members whose career contributions exemplify the highest order of public service. In 2010 we honored Harry J. Fulton, chief of the Mental Health Division for the D.C. Public Defender Service (PDS). Fulton has devoted his career to securing fundamental rights for District residents with mental illnesses and has served as a mentor to numerous attorneys at PDS. Prior award winners represent a veritable hall of fame of lawyers working in government.

Members of our bar not only perform great public service in representing government clients, but they also have been pioneers in promoting pro bono service by government lawyers. Over the past 15 years, with encouragement from both Republican and Democratic administrations, an impressive Federal Government Pro Bono Program has been created. At the heart of this effort is the Interagency Pro BonoWorking Group, a committee that serves as a resource for all federal agencies on matters related to pro bonowork by federal attorneys.

Nearly 40 federal agencies participate in the program, coordinated by Laura Klein at the U.S Department of Justice. Each October the program sponsors Government Pro BonoWeek, with events dedicated to promoting and celebrating pro bonowork by government attorneys and legal staff. The program also acts as a liaison to the larger legal community, most notably civil legal services providers, when issues or opportunities arise for government attorneys.

Federal government attorneys regularly take cases and other projects from organizations such as the D.C. Bar Pro BonoProgram, D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project, Legal Aid Society, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, and Women Empowered Against Violence, among others. In 2010 federal government attorneys represented nearly 50 clients from the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program Advocacy & Justice Clinic, a remarkable record. In addition, 11 federal agencies are scheduled to staff the D.C. Bar Pro BonoProgram Advice & Referral Clinic in 2011. These agencies will recruit attorneys and paralegals to staff the Saturday morning clinic, anywhere from two to 10 times this year.

In 2009 the American Bar Association honored the Federal Government Pro Bono Program with the Pro Bono Publico Award. The success of the program reflects both the devotion to professionalism and public service of government lawyers and great leadership. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, among others, have delivered keynote addresses to celebrate Government Pro Bono Week. D.C. Bar Past President John C. Cruden (deputy assistant attorney general, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Department of Justice) has worked tirelessly to expand the Federal Government Pro Bono Program and has volunteered numerous times at the Advice & Referral Clinic. Other top government lawyers regularly volunteer at the Advice & Referral Clinic, most recently Tony West (assistant attorney general, Civil Division, Department of Justice); Ignacia S. Moreno (assistant attorney general, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Department of Justice); Harold Koh (legal adviser, U.S. Department of State); and Willard K. Tom (general counsel, Federal Trade Commission).

Just as the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program has been a model for other jurisdictions, the Federal Government Pro Bono Program in Washington has spearheaded outreach to agency field offices outside of the Washington metropolitan area. Programs exist in Chicago and New York City, and a third is being developed in San Francisco. In each of these cities, the program has networked with local legal services organizations, held trainings for federal government attorneys, and organized events to recruit volunteers.

Many of us were attracted to law because of its foundation in service—service to clients, to our communities, and to those who cannot otherwise afford to pay for a lawyer. Likewise, many of us were attracted to Washington by the promise of performing public service. Our 16,000 colleagues serving in government keep that promise every day.

Reach Ronald S. Flagg at rflagg@dcbar.org.