In 2009, at the instigation of then-Chancellor Sayde Ladov, the Philadelphia Bar Association created a Civil Gideon Task Force to study problems of access to justice. A cross-section of the bench and bar familiar with the difficulty faced by the indigent getting representation set out to discuss how to move forward the concept of a "right to counsel" in civil cases. This effort was in accordance with an American Bar Association initiative and resolution supporting a right to counsel in civil cases involving the most serious problems, and a growing national movement to do education, research, litigation, legislation and pilot projects to move the idea forward.

One of the subcommittees of the task force, chaired by Karen Buck of the SeniorLAW Center and Anita Santos-Singh of Philadelphia Legal Assistance, focused specifically on problems with representation in housing issues. While Community Legal Services (CLS) has represented tenants in Philadelphia Municipal Court’s housing hearings for many years, the SeniorLAW Center has represented senior tenants, and a more recent pro bono landlord-tenant project led by Ethan Fogel of Dechert has stepped in to handle cases CLS cannot take, the lack of representation in those hearings remains tremendous. Approximately 95 percent of the tenant litigants are unrepresented (while the vast majority of landlords have counsel), and these are cases that involve a most basic issue: the ability to stay in one’s home. The task force subcommittee proposed the creation of a help center located on the premises of Municipal Court, where unrepresented tenants could come for assistance. After a lengthy planning process that required getting the consent and support of the court, a model took shape that would allow for limited representation of some tenants, pro bono referral for others, and in-depth support of pro se litigants, providing information about their legal rights and the court’s procedures and processes. It would be the first time assistance to tenants would be available right inside the courthouse. A lawyer with the proper experience to run the project was identified, and it all seemed ready to move. However, the idea had to be placed on hold because there were no resources available to fund a new initiative.

Enter the American College of Trial Lawyers. The college is the oldest and arguably most prestigious professional society for accomplished courtroom lawyers. Past presidents include figures such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell. Admission is by invitation only, and fellows are elected to the college only after a vigorous process of vetting both their trial abilities and reputation for professionalism. Within Pennsylvania, fellows of the college are instantly recognizable as the best of the private trial bar.

By coincidence, a member of the bar task force was Jerry McHugh of Raynes McCarty, who was also state chair of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American College. McHugh’s history with legal services matches his accomplishments as a trial lawyer; he was chair of the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts board for seven years; president of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, where he helped double the endowment; and served as president of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network. He approached the college with a challenge: If its foundation would fund a $25,000 grant for the help center, McHugh would raise matching funds from Pennsylvania fellows, a historic first for the college.

Pennsylvania fellows rallied to the cause, matching the grant, and allowing the Philadelphia Landlord/Tenant Legal Help Center to open on the premises of Philadelphia Municipal Court. The court itself embraced the effort, providing office space, furniture and notices of the center’s availability to litigants. Staffed by Michele Cohen, an experienced housing lawyer employed at the SeniorLAW Center, the program provided assistance to more than 1,000 families in its first year of operation, in many cases preventing evictions that would have resulted in homelessness. As the center’s work took root, even attorneys representing landlords began to refer opposing parties whom they believed to be deserving of assistance because of personal adversity.

The premise of the college’s grant was that the center would find its own funding moving forward. Indeed, McHugh secured the initial grant with a promise not to return. With economic conditions still unfavorable, no stable funding source for the center emerged, and it faced the possibility of early closure. In McHugh’s eyes, that was unthinkable, and so he launched a challenge grant of his own, first approaching Delaware lawyer Bart Dalton, the college’s regent for the Third Circuit.

Dalton and McHugh have almost identical life stories. Each is a product of Philadelphia neighborhoods, Mayfair and West Philadelphia, respectively.

Both of them are consistently feted as top plaintiffs trial lawyers and featured in cover stories in the legal press. And both are products of Jesuit education, graduating St. Joseph’s University one year apart. McHugh’s proposal? That he and Dalton donate $10,000 each, effectively stepping into the shoes of the college, and once again ask Pennsylvania fellows to match. Dalton, whose pro bono service in Delaware matches that of McHugh here, did not hesitate, and more than 50 Pennsylvania fellows responded with donations of their own, saving the help center from an early demise. This effort by leaders and fellows of the American College represents a remarkable commitment to making the ideal of equal access to justice a reality, and shows the trial bar at its very best. •

Catherine C. Carr is co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Civil Gideon Task Force and executive director of Community Legal Services.