Sherrilyn Ifill, keynote speaker at the Pro Bono Publico Awards luncheon held Aug. 6 during the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, apologized to the audience, saying she was speaking a “little bit to the choir” when talking about the importance of lawyers.
But, she added, “I don’t think there is a more important moment to talk to lawyers about the moment we’re in in this country and what our role must be.”
Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, cautioned that the spate of fatal shootings of African–American men in St. Louis, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Staten Island, N.Y., Baton Rouge, Columbus, Ohio, and elsewhere around the nation and the perception of unequal justice in the criminal justice system had resulted in “a crisis of confidence in the rule of law.”
As a civil rights lawyer, Ifill said she was always optimistic no matter how difficult things got, “but I do want to impress on you that things are quite difficult at this moment.”
African-Americans and other minorities have “largely not been believed,” but “videos have made it impossible for people to avoid the truth,” Ifill said of the tragic police-involved killings.
“If the state can take your life when you pose no threat and no one is held responsible for it, then you are indeed a second-class citizen,” she continued. “For those of us who believe in the rule of law this is something we have to pay attention to.”
Watch video of recipients' acceptance speeches:
“There is a lot of pain out there that mainstream America is just becoming aware of,” Ifill said, adding that lawyers, who were automatically taken to be leaders, must find new ways of solving old racial problems.
“I have no doubt that this moment is a moment that is so difficult because it is a transformative moment,” she said. “When a wound is laid bare then we can figure out the proper treatment.”
She called on lawyers to step up to the challenge, saying it was a responsibility that they “owed,” and noting that what has made the United States “a country in which the principles of equality and justice are touchstones” came from the work of organizations like the Legal Defense Fund.
The hallmark of LDF lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, civil rights litigants who more than half a century ago argued the landmark, Brown v Board of Education case that desegregated public schools, was, Ifill said, their “duality of sight.” They had the ability to see the limitations of the society but “also to look around the corner and envision what the future can be like, envision what this country could be.”
Marshall, who was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and became the first African-American Supreme Court justice, “believed in the rule of law when the rule of law didn’t believe in him,” Ifill said.
Ifill’s address preceded the presentations of the 2016 Pro Bono Publico Awards to five recipients who demonstrated outstanding commitment to the kind of volunteer legal services that help the least of the nation’s citizens. Click on a recipient's name to watch video of their acceptance:
- U.S. based lawyers of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP of New York, who dedicated more than 63,000 hours to pro bono work in 2015.
- John O. Goss of Goss and Fentress, Norfolk, Va.,who has helped over 50 Social Security Disability recipients in rural Appalachia keep their benefits.
- Renee M. Schoenberg of DLA Piper, Chicago, for her extensive charitable work, both in the U.S. and abroad.
- Katten Muchin Rosenman of Katten Muchin Roseman LLP of Chicago, for starting a legal clinic in a Chicago pubic school to provide basic legal assistance to members of the school community and support education.
- Hillary Gaston Walsh of The Law Office of Hillary Gaston Walsh, South Korea, for her representation of indigent asylum-seekers in their appeals to Board of Immigration Appeals and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Pro Bono Publico Awards program is sponsored by the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.