As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, Public Service Partner Susie Hoffman writes to Crowell & Moring lawyers and professional about how the spirit that inspired us to launch a different kind of firm is still with us today.

Public Service in Our Culture
By Susie Hoffman
Public Service Partner and President-elect of the D.C. Bar

On November 1, 1988, I walked into Crowell & Moring’s offices with butterflies in my stomach – feeling a combination of excitement, apprehension, and anticipation. I was there to be the firm’s first Public Service Counsel—actually to be the first public service counsel in the nation. George Ruttinger was the primary architect of the position that was crafted after hours of consultation with other firms with thriving pro bono programs and after internal firm debate.  The position was emblematic of C&M itself—an innovation, the result of thinking outside the box, an experiment. The position was created in celebration of C&M’s 10th anniversary as a reflection of its commitment to community. In the coming years, I would learn that the firm’s founders, Took Crowell and Fred Moring, were all about community—about building an internal community that recognized the integral part that each individual contributed to our collective success AND about giving back to the community in our city through pro bono work and community service. 

After a whirlwind of introductions and hellos, I was ushered to my new office. A bare desk decorated with only a small ivory envelope faced me. The handwritten note was from Took Crowell welcoming me to the firm and articulating the hopes and dreams that he and the firm had of building a pro bono program that would engage our attorneys in meaningful pro bono work and that would be a beacon in the profession. As I sat down and stared at the expanse of empty space before me, I embraced the blank slate that I had been afforded to create a pro bono program, although I have to admit that it was a bit daunting. I reflected that this might have been how it felt for the firm’s founders a decade ago, as they embarked on creating a firm that broke the mold and embraced new ideas. The only directive that I had been given about the program was to engage as many attorneys as possible in doing some sort of pro bono work. It was a mandate in which I fervently believed because pro bono work had a profound impact on my career, and I wanted others to share this same transformation.

Early in my career, while a litigation associate at another firm, I volunteered at My Sister’s Place, a shelter for domestic violence survivors. I took on a case for a woman, “Sandra,” who needed a protection order against her ex-boyfriend who had slashed her across the face. As an eager young associate, I threw myself into preparation for the hearing, readying myself for my “Perry Mason” moment. On the morning of the hearing just outside the courtroom, my client tearfully confessed, “Ms. Hoffman, I am not sure that I can go through with this. I just saw Tony’s face, and I don’t think I can testify against him.” I took a deep breath, paused, and gathered myself before responding. I knew that this was not my case. It was not my moment. It was hers. I told her that the choice was hers. We could ask to dismiss the case and go home. But if we moved forward, I assured her that I would be by her side and would get her through the proceeding. Sandra decided to go ahead with the hearing, testifying with poise and conviction. The judge issued the stay away order. I had three (à la Took) take-aways from this experience.  First, we are here to serve our clients; we can counsel, but ultimately it’s their decision about whether and how a case moves forward. Second, I saw that the legal system can be a tool for change and empowerment. Third, it taught me how much we can learn from our pro bono clients—in this instance about courage and the complexity of human relationships.   

During the next 30 years, our attorneys had the opportunity to learn from and make a difference through their pro bono work. They have kept families in their homes, created “forever families” for children through adoption who were otherwise caught in a system of abuse and neglect, and obtained protection for countless survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Along the way, they have actually saved lives—obtaining asylum for refugees who faced persecution and even death if they returned to their home countries, securing reprieves for death row inmates, and clemency for individuals with life sentences. They have made our society a better place. Our lawyers have battled racial discrimination in housing, the rental car market, and restaurant chains. They have reunited families at the Mexican border and waged campaigns to support the civil rights of all individuals—from racial minorities to members of the LGBT community.

News of these efforts was shared via newsletters, at Cheap Booze, in the coffee room, and at the annual George Bailey Pro Bono Awards event. What had long been a core value of the firm and its founding fathers became an enduring part of the firm culture. When people leave C&M, many take memories of relationships they have built, the culture, and the lasting impact of their pro bono work. It is probably this “loaves & fishes” aspect of the pro bono program of which I am most proud. The pro bono program has a legacy beyond these walls; in addition to impacting the lives of our clients, pro bono has shaped the careers of many attorneys. In their own words, here are just a few comments from those who have carried on this legacy.

“You inspired me to maintain pro bono as an important part of my practice. I have tried hard to engender those values at [my new firm], and the award is proof that it’s working.” 

“Everything you have done on pro bono—dating back before it was the cool hip thing—has made such a difference, both in the community and in the professional development of so many attorneys, including me.”

“[t]he values that… brought me to the firm—the commitment to diversity, to pro bono service, to individuality, cooperation, and personal relationships—made this the place for me… Over the past six years, those values have been hallmarks of my experience here. When I think of a moment that captures it all, I think of the George Bailey Awards. It is my favorite event of the year. I love walking into the giant conference room and seeing so many familiar people… I love hearing about the good work that we are doing across the firm, in every office, attorneys and staff, whether I know the folks involved or not. I love learning about how different members of the team from different groups and different backgrounds were able to bring unique and special skills to the matters to make them successful. And whether I have had a big pro bono year or a small one, I always walk out inspired to do more.” 

Thirty years later, we can say with confidence that the experiment has been a success. More than 150 firms across the country have created public service counsel or similar full-time positions.  C&M has a thriving pro bono culture and an award-winning pro bono program that has had a real impact on our communities. I am fortunate and honored to have been a part of C&M and to have led the firm’s pro bono program; my life has been immeasurably enriched by the attorneys and staff who have passed through these doors, by the clients who have touched my life with their courage and tenacity, and by the embracing culture of C&M.