Founded in 1971, the Washington Council of Lawyers (WCL) is the D.C. area’s only voluntary bar association dedicated exclusively to promoting pro bono and public interest law. The Council is both a forum and a voice for cutting edge public interest issues.

In 1970, a group of liberal Washington attorneys ran a campaign to oppose President Nixon’s nomination of Harold Carswell to Supreme Court justice. The campaign spawned thousands of letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a few months later, the nomination was defeated.

The lawyers’ success in defeating Carswell’s nomination was encouraging. The tangible realization that liberal lawyers can effect change helped spawn a new organization – a council of lawyers devoted to public service and liberal ideals.

Before 1972, the D.C. Bar Association was voluntary and strictly conservative. As such, the bar repeatedly failed to emphasize lawyers’ ethical obligations to pro bono service. The WCL grew out of the devotion of lawyers, mainly those who ran the campaign against Carswell, who disagreed with the mindset of the then-voluntary D.C. Bar. They were lawyers who envisioned justice in a more liberal vein. Early on, they understood that there is and was a place in Washington for intelligent lawyers committed to progressive social change.

“The arrival on the relatively conservative Washington legal scene of large numbers of very idealistic and relatively liberal young lawyers recently emerged from the political and social ferment of the university campuses [of the 1960s] was bound to create an organization committed to social change and liberal ideals,” notes former WCL President Russell B. Stevenson Jr.

One of the Council’s first successful events was a Counter Law Day Luncheon, organized to protest the D.C. Bar Association’s decision to select Robert Mardian, Assistant Attorney General for Internal Security under President Richard Nixon, as the speaker for a 1972 luncheon. The WCL organized a counter luncheon at the same time as the Mardian talk, which featured Former Senator Harold Hughes (D-Iowa). Hughes spoke in a different room of the same hotel about the Nixon-era Justice Department’s disregard for civil liberty and freedom. According to accounts of WCL members, attendance at the WCL luncheon outweighed the Mardian talk by roughly three to one.

In 1972, the D.C. Bar Association became mandatory and unified. The WCL developed a slate of candidates that won the leadership of the new D.C. Bar Association’s Board of Governors by a landslide. The new unified D.C. Bar shared many of the Council’s progressive ideals about homelessness, poverty and public interest law, and the relationship between the D.C. Bar and the Council became cooperative and collaborative.

Though the D.C. Bar changed significantly in the early 1970s, the Council did not cease its fight for socially just policies. For the remainder of the 1970s the WCL ran successful task forces on welfare, housing, equal employment opportunities and women’s rights. The Council co-sponsored with the D.C. Bar a trip to South Africa in 1974. In Johannesburg, Council members addressed questions of human rights and later met with lawyers and judges in Kenya and Tanzania.

Four years later, in 1978, the Council sponsored one of the first trips to Cuba available to the general American public. Members of the Council met with government officials and discussed the human rights issues and the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

The Council transitioned from the 1970s to the 1980s, further establishing itself as a respected, liberal-minded voluntary bar. In the early 1980s, the WCL surveyed American legal aid groups. The survey’s follow-up report noted the rising number of Americans being turned away from legal aid services due to federal cutbacks in legal aid support. Throughout the 80s, the Council filed amicus briefs in the federal courts, opposing appointments and legislation that threatened civil justice. In addition, members of the Council published a series of hard-hitting reports on the Regan administration’s treatment of civil liberties.

During the 1990s, the Council ran the Death Penalty Representation Project, the country’s first program designed to recruit and train lawyers from smaller practice settings to handle post-conviction matters for death-row inmates. The Council also helped parents who desired to adopt children to overcome the legal barriers associated with the D.C. Superior Court’s adoption procedures.

In 1996, the Council began its Mock Trial Program, which continues today. Through this program, Council volunteers assist students at Washington D.C.’s Garrison Elementary School to put on a trial and be a lawyer for a day. While working with lawyers and others preparing for the trial, the students gain a first-hand appreciation of the role of law in their everyday lives.

Also, the WCL began its Going Public program in the 1990s – a forum implemented to educate lawyers interested in transitioning into careers in public service. The Council also spent a good amount of time surveying and evaluating large D.C. firm pro bono programs throughout the 1990s.

Of course, monthly luncheon gatherings and speaker series that discuss pertinent legal issues have been a primary activity from the beginning. Over the years, the Council has hosted numerous speakers including Former Senator Birch Bay (D-Indiana), Former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Former Senator Gary Hart (D-Colorado), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Former Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota). The Council continues to hold panel discussions that address topics of public interest concern. Recent forums have focused on issues including libery and security; civil rights class actions; and the legal impact of homelessness.

The WCL repeatedly finds new and interesting projects and causes related to pro bono service. In 2003, the Council presented its first Government Pro Bono Award, designed to recognize and encourage government agencies and government-employed attorneys dedicated to public interest law and pro bono service. The WCL continues to evaluate and endorse candidates for D.C. Bar office.

As always, the Council’s agenda is developed, set and carried out by its members, all of whom are people who care about justice. The WCL continues to offer ways for lawyers to tackle public interest issues large and small, to stay active in the trenches and find jobs in the public interest community.

“A hallmark of the Council is its ability to react quickly to issues that threaten access to justice, and its capacity to stand up, again and again, to make people aware of issues affecting access to justice, and to encourage lawyers to recognize and act upon their obligation to serve their communities,” said Katherine L. Garrett, who served as Council President during the mid 1990s.

The Council seeks to foment justice, and it is its members who lead the fight.

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