President's Column: Citizen Lawyers – Let’s Revive the Historic Reputation for Our Profession
by John Baker
Traditionally, for more than 100 years, the lawyers of the Denver Bar Association have used their time and their talents to benefit the common good. These DBA "citizen lawyers" are too numerous to name, but people such as Richard Marden Davis, Bill DeMoulin, Barbara Quade, Gary Jackson, Brooke Wunnicke, Ralph Torres, Hubert Farbes, Judge Al Harrell, Judge Will Hood, Judge Mary Celeste, Charley Garcia and Kenzo Kawanabe immediately come to mind. Elsa Martinez Tenreiro and Mark Fogg, our two past DBA presidents, also are on the list. Young citizen lawyers include the likes of Vance Knapp, Meshach Rhoades, Victoria Johnson, Libby De Blasio, Ilene Bloom, Kwali Farbes, Trent Ongert and Nina Wang.
One of the goals for the DBA in the coming year needs to be to encourage the new generation of DBA members to pick up this mantle of the citizen lawyer, working for the common good. The terrible effects of the current economic recession on Denver’s citizens require us, as lawyers, to step out of our law offices, courtrooms and government offices, and help alleviate the suffering of our fellow citizens. Citizen lawyers are needed more than ever in Denver.
Oh, sure — it is tempting to "pine away" in our offices, fretting and worrying about layoffs, paying overhead and wondering when that next case will come in the door. Rather, seize this opportunity to get out into your community. Show the community that you are willing to use your time and your talents working for the common good. When the economy rebounds, those same members of the community will remember you for your ability to meet their business needs. In addition, you will just feel better about yourself, not to mention the fact that this will provide opportunities to network.
Where did this concept of the "citizen lawyer" originate? In the United States, the roots can be traced back to our nation’s Founders. In Dec. 1779, Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson urged the College of William and Mary to establish a law school by employing George Wythe, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. Wythe became the nation’s first law professor. Jefferson advocated that aspiring lawyers should be taught in a university setting not only to be excellent legal craftsmen but also to be good citizens with a sense "to lead for the common good" in their communities, states and nations. Thus, the concept of the citizen lawyer was born.
Throughout our history, citizen lawyers have stepped forward to help their communities during hard times. During the Great Depression, citizen lawyers crafted the New Deal. Guided by law professor and later Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, law school graduates of the day worked with seasoned mentors to fashion innovative government approaches to management, regulation and service. During the civil rights struggles, citizen lawyers have led the charge for racial, gender and sexual preference equal rights. Today, President Barack Obama has challenged everyone — including lawyers — to help out through community service.
Traditionally, public service has been a critical part of the lawyer’s professional role. Recently, however, public service work and the private practice of law have come to be seen as mutually exclusive concepts. Work for society’s common good and social equality is left to "public interest" lawyers, who are often underpaid and who work with limited resources. Sadly, the ranks of citizen lawyers have diminished. The image of the lawyer as a civic leader has given way to the lawyer joke type of caricature. According to surveys, the nation’s citizenry often view lawyers as only advocating for their own self-interests in the business of law. We are no longer seen as advocates for the common good.
The winds of change are in the air! Today, like W & M Law School, other law schools in the United States imbue their law students with citizen-lawyer values. Both of Colorado’s law schools are prime examples. Similarly, lawyers in bar associations from Michigan to North Carolina receive citizen-lawyer awards for professionalism and pro bono work in their communities.
And look at our young lawyers! In Denver, members of the DBA Young Lawyer Division work tirelessly on projects to benefit foster children, foster families and the Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People. Our young lawyers also provide support and networking opportunities for their peers. To commemorate such achievements every year in Denver, the Richard Marden Davis Award goes to a young lawyer who exhibits the persona of professionalism and has dedicated significant time to community service.
To reinstate our reputation as citizen lawyers, we ought to encourage our new young DBA lawyers to take time from their law practice to get active in their community. Baby Boomer DBA members can help simply by being good citizen-lawyer role models. We all need to lead by example. Working shoulder to shoulder, together we can volunteer in the Denver community to serve on nonprofit boards, mentor underprivileged children, coach youth sports teams, clean up trash along the local highway, serve food at a homeless shelter or help out at our local church, mosque or synagogue.
At the DBA there are unlimited citizen-lawyer opportunities. You can volunteer to serve on bar committees. Take on a pro bono case from Metro Volunteer Lawyers. Mediate cases in the Denver County Court through the Court Annexed Mediation Program. Serve as a panelist on Lawline 9. Volunteer as a substitute teacher in a Denver Public School. You’ll be glad you did, and the community — as well as our profession — will be better for it.
To become a citizen lawyer, check out the DBA Web site at www.denbar.org and click on "Volunteer Opportunities."