Drinker Biddle & Reath has launched a pro bono initiative to honor the late Barbara McDowell -- public advocacy lawyer, former Jones Day partner, and wife of Drinker Biddle partner Jerry Hartman. Hartman will help head up the Barbara McDowell Pro Bono Initiative, he says, with the goal of carrying on his wife’s work.
“This is a remarkable initiative for a law firm to do,” Hartman says. “It’s just amazing that they committed the resources, people, and the time to do this.”
Beginning in 2004, McDowell was the founding director of the appellate project at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, where she fought for social justice by representing the poor, charities, and civic groups with little access to legal services. She died of brain cancer in January after a year-long battle.
At the Legal Aid Society, McDowell argued about 50 poverty law cases in the D.C. Court of Appeals that had “wide-ranging impact” beyond the specific fact situations the cases arose from, Hartman says. “She was responsible for starting this whole idea of trying to do cases that would have precedential value, that would have system-wide impact rather than just helping some individual,” Hartman says.
She also argued 18 cases, including two in one day, before the U.S. Supreme Court when she worked in the solicitor general’s office in the Justice Department from 1997 to 2004.
Among other things, McDowell’s public advocacy work shaped and clarified laws to protect disabled tenants from discrimination by their landlords and victims of domestic abuse from their abusers. Both had a nationwide effect, says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and, at the same time, she was amongst the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
As the initiative takes off, Hartman, along with two other Drinker Biddle partners, will review potential candidates, choose five cases, and assign them to partners and associates in the firm. They will consider cases ranging from public housing and immigration to children’s rights and civil rights issues involving voting and education. As a former professor of civil rights law at Wake Forest University School of Law, Hartman says he would like to pick up a case in that area. He will oversee the program, he says, but will continue his well-established employment discrimination practice.
Hartman sees it as a perfect salute to McDowell’s life. “I thought this was the thing to do for Barbara,” he says. “She really was the voice of the downtrodden in the appellate area in the D.C. Court of Appeals.”