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December 07, 2016

Inaugural Address of Deborah R. Gross, 90th Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association

Deborah Gross photo

Good afternoon.

I would like to take a moment to remember Pearl Harbor Day, 75 years ago, where many American servicemen and women lost their lives or were injured. The U.S.S. Arizona Battleship was bombed and sunk during Japan's surprise morning attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the United States into World War II. The remains of many of the 1,177 U.S. military personnel who died aboard the Arizona are still inside the submerged wreck. It was the greatest loss of life ever in an attack on a U.S. warship, according to the National Park Service. Please join me in taking a brief moment of silence.

Thank you.

First, I want to congratulate Kyoung Williams, Manny Pokotilow and Jay Ochroch on their much-deserved recognition. I have to tell you, it is truly special for me to share the spotlight with Manny, whom I have known my entire life as he is one of my father's closest and longest friends. Manny always has a smile on his face and infectious enthusiasm. And remember, start your training now, in order to be ready for the Bar Association/Support Center for Child Advocates Charity 5K Run in May.

Next, I want to sincerely thank Gaetan Alfano for his dedication, leadership and friendship. I didn't know Gaetan before I became Vice Chancellor. He welcomed my involvement and included me in his process and decision-making. As I often joked to my husband, this past year, I communicated with Gaetan more than any other person. His determination to lead this Bar Association to new heights through his focus on fiscal responsibility, relevancy and sustaining and growing membership was remarkable. The Association passed numerous important resolutions, fought against the proposed sales tax on legal services -- which in all likelihood we will have to do again in 2017 -- published a number of op-eds, and had well-attended and topical Chancellor's Forums, for example. Some of these forums focused on the Attorney General Election and the proposed sugary drink tax. These are just a few of the Association's accomplishments under Gaetan's inspiring leadership.

I also want to thank my wonderful family, friends and new colleagues at Kaufman Coren & Ress. I'd like to give a special shout out to my tennis friends, my walking partners, and my Adath Israel friends. But, most important to my being here and being a successful lawyer and mom, is my husband Stuart who is a 50/50 partner, although we both joke that that has changed to 70/30. Stuart - Thank you very much!

My involvement at the Association comes as a result of my serving as a trustee, officer and President of the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation for more than 12 years. I am only one of a handful of individuals who has become Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association after being President of the Foundation. This is important, as this path has shaped my knowledge of and experience with the Philadelphia legal community.

I have asked the Executive Directors of the legal service organizations to take their place alongside me on the dais today. Philadelphia is in the unique position of having more than 40 different organizations as champions for those who are vulnerable, or who are living at or below the poverty line. These organizations fight for justice and make our legal system more fair. I have watched in awe as these Executive Directors, who meet monthly at the Bar Association, under the watchful eye of Merril Zebe, have discussed how they can use their limited resources to jointly address and attack pressing issues of the present and future. The names of the different organizations are scrolling and there is information on them at your tables.

Also seated on the dais are some amazing leaders of the Expungement Clinic, Meghan Claiborne and John Coyle of our Young Lawyers Division's Executive Committee.

All of these individuals on the dais, and their organizations, are the unsung heroes of our community. They are all of our representatives in the fight to protect basic human rights promised to all in the U.S. Constitution. While I know many of us have provided monetary support for their endeavors, and many of us have provided pro bono support as well, and I thank you for both as they are desperately needed . . . we need to step up our game and step out of our comfort zone.

I personally know that is not easy. But, I did just that when I participated this year in the Expungement Clinic. I have absolutely no experience in criminal law and my only criminal law education was during my first year of law school many years ago. However, I attended the CLE where lawyer volunteers explained the process, what could be expunged, sealed or possibly pardoned, and the importance of this service. I am not sure if you are aware that the Philadelphia Bar Association received approximately 2,000 applications for expungement, which were reviewed by members of our Young Lawyers Division. The Association set up appointments at six different sites throughout the city for attorney volunteers to provide limited representation to these applicants. There were nearly 150 attorney volunteers, the names of whom are scrolling on the screens. On the day of the clinic, I, along with many others, brought our computers and sat offering advice and comfort. As I mentioned earlier, I was not comfortable with my limited knowledge of criminal law. But, my nervousness and fright was overcome by the kindness of the people whom I helped. One woman's dream of going to nursing school was halted by a criminal arrest for which she was not convicted and the charges were dropped. However, the school wouldn't even accept her application because of her record. After we completed the expungement process, she was overcome with joy and began to cry. I was moved as well.

My focus this year is threefold:

First, supporting the legal services community and the individuals whom they serve. Second, encouraging greater pro bono efforts by all lawyers. And third, creating a new pro bono task force which will report broadly and publicly our progress in the past 15 years since a task force was empaneled by Chancellor Allan Gordon.

In regard to the first, the 40+ legal aid nonprofits provide high-quality and effective services, but are currently only able to meet approximately 20 percent of the known need for such services. By any measure, that is not a justice system that is providing Equal Justice Under Law. We MUST do better! We are embarking on unchartered waters where there are real concerns for the rule of law, due process, individuals' constitutional and civil rights, as well as the threat of decreased federal and state funding. Regardless of our personal politics, none of us wants to see constitutionally protected rights of individuals and families compromised by new state or national reforms. The legal aid nonprofits will be on the frontlines addressing these sorts of reform efforts and they will need our help.

With respect to promoting more pro bono support, the Bar will launch a Section/Committee pro bono liaison network to team up with and respond to requests from the legal services community. In addition to repeating the Expungement Clinic, we will use it as a roadmap for clinics on immigration rights, due process, and civil rights, among others. If you take a CLE training program, and attend a clinic or provide advice to a client, the CLE will be free. This is what we did with the Expungement Clinic. We will partner with the legal aid organizations to support their clinics. For example, this winter, the LGBTQ Rights Committee is partnering with the Mazzoni Center to hold a training and name change clinic.

There will be opportunities for you to help people in need by providing limited legal representation, education, advice and advocacy which we will highlight on our website and to which we will direct you, such as the newly established Elder Justice Resource Center. Under President Judge Woods-Skipper's leadership, the Bar Association will provide attorney limited representation to the Center. I have spoken with a number of the larger firms and we are looking to coordinate a schedule where a firm is responsible for a particular time period. All are welcome to participate. Additionally, you can assist at other court-based resource centers, such as the Landlord Tenant Legal Help Center at the Municipal Court, and the Family Law Center at Family Court, which is staffed by the remarkable efforts of the Family Law Section.

Similarly, in federal court, there is a need for volunteer attorneys for the Prisoner Civil Rights Panel and the Plaintiffs' Employment Panel.

We will have a Chancellor's Forum on the psychology of giving and doing pro bono, which will include the results of an analysis of what our community has done. In 2001, Chancellor Allan Gordon empaneled a pro bono task force that made a number of recommendations. We will empanel a new task force to see how far we have come in 15 years. I am convinced we have made major progress, but I know we still can do more. Nevertheless, it is important to educate the community-at-large on the vastness of the safety and services we do provide, as well as quantify its economic value. Can you imagine what would happen if we weren't here?

And finally, I hope to be able to announce at the conclusion of my term, that we were successful in the development of the Philadelphia Equal Justice Center. The concept of an Equal Justice Center is not new. I know when Judge DuBois was President of the Bar Foundation, they discussed this concept. It was also discussed in the 2002 Task Force Report. Well, we have made major progress. We have more than 20 legal and affiliated social service non-profits -- totaling over 100,000 square feet of space -- that are interested in co-locating in one building to take advantage of efficiencies in providing assistance to clients who often face more than one type of difficult situation. Next week, the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, in conjunction with Community Legal Services, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Regional Housing Legal Services, Wallace Roberts Todd Architects and Pennrose Development, will be submitting a proposal in response to an RFP from the City for a site for the Equal Justice Center. A lot of people have devoted enormous amounts of time to this project, and I thank each from the bottom of my heart.

The very skills that make great lawyers are the very skills that our society desperately needs to harness and focus on addressing problems like the justice gap. Your continued membership and involvement in the Philadelphia Bar Association is necessary to demonstrate the importance of the legal community's collective voice and actions to protect the rule of law and due process, stand up for individual rights, protect against discrimination and hatred, and support the independence of the judiciary and freedom of speech. We need to go forward as a unified Bar in a period that is most challenging to the Association and to our country. I thank you in advance for your support and look forward to a great year.

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