The chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association is the organization’s leader on the front lines, and the executive director of the association has been present at the creation of each year’s leader.

When Executive Director Ken Shear announced his retirement this year to take place at the end of 2013, lawyers active in the association said that he was the "fabric" and the "cornerstone" of the association.

Shear likened his role to the title that a former secretary of state gave to his memoir, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department.

Ben Picker, a past chancellor of the association and senior counsel with Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, said Shear always pushed chancellors with his "constructive judgment and his good humor," including on adopting policies that advanced the public interest and public service, but that he always yielded to chancellors because they speak for the organization.

Shear helped move the association from a trade organization, providing such services like insurance to an organization that gives back to the community, Picker said. Those initiatives include advancing the role of women and other minorities in the legal profession and starting several pro bono projects that eventually spun off to become full-fledged legal services organizations like the Support Center for Child Advocates and the SeniorLAW Center, Picker said.

The bar association has been an "incubator" for several of the city’s nonprofits dedicated to providing civil legal aid, including Philly VIP, the Homeless Advocacy Project and Community Legal Services, Shear said.

"We used to say it was the nest and then we’d throw you out of the nest and say, ‘Go fly,’" Shear said.

The association’s delivery of legal services committee, which is a forum on issues involving the public interest and addressing the legal rights of disadvantaged populations, has been one part of why Philadelphia has a flourishing public-interest sector, Shear said.

The committee started as a "committee where older white men used to sit around and bitch that CLS was taking their clients," Shear said. "We had to convince them, first of all, they can’t pay your fees anyhow."

Roseanne Lucianek, director of the division for bar services at the American Bar Association, said the Philadelphia Bar Association is a leader among the country’s bar associations, in part because of Shear.

"The bar association has a reputation for public service and legal services to the poor," Lucianek said. "It also has a reputation [because] so many metro areas have lost their financial areas and their law firms have moved out to the suburbs and so that the core city is not as vital as it once was. That’s not the case in [Philadelphia]. There’s still a lot of law firm investment and leadership in the bar association and the Philly bar … sees itself as a civic player in the city’s government, in the city’s life, and I think that … distinguishes it, from other metro bar associations that don’t have the same kind of support from the law firms and their communities."

Shear said he has always just been part of a team or a network making a comment or two that helped in some way to move things along that accomplished the association’s successes, including the fostering of legal services to help Philadelphians.

Others said Shear’s role has been much larger.

Shear is the "cornerstone" of the association, Picker said. Abraham C. Reich, another former chancellor and co-chair of Fox Rothschild, said Shear has been the fabric of the bar association.

The bar association also had a rare competition for chancellor in 2015 when Albert S. Dandridge III, a partner with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis’ securities practice group, defeated Joseph Prim, a workers’ compensation attorney in the two-man firm Duca and Prim, to be elected vice chancellor.

The bar association also highlighted a push some civil legal aid lawyers have been making as part of a Philadelphia Bar Association task force to provide "civil Gideon" for litigants facing civil cases that would impact a fundamental aspect of life such as housing or parental rights.

The inspiration for "civil Gideon" is the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, which set out that criminal defendants who are too poor to afford their own attorneys have a constitutional right to have counsel provided by the government.

Among other events, a Chancellor’s Forum on the "Civil Justice Gap" was held on the issue.

During the forum, state Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus, who was assigned to chair the Pennsylvania judicial task force reviewing the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct, said a revised code of judicial conduct in Pennsylvania should allow judges to advocate and facilitate pro bono programs for the poor without running afoul of the conduct rules.

Lazarus’ committee’s recommendations to the state Supreme Court have not yet been issued.

Amaris Elliott-Engel can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or Follow her on Twitter @AmarisTLI.