Pro bono campaign continues late government lawyer's work

WASHINGTON — The late Barbara McDowell went from California's San Joaquin Valley to the legal summit and into the hearts of those who knew her.

Now, the former member of the solicitor general's office, who died in January at age 56, is being justly honored. A new national pro bono campaign established in McDowell's name will sustain her commitment to using the law as a tool of social justice.

"From the time she was a Girl Scout, doing things for the poor, she was helping people," said her mother, Joyce McDowell, who still lives in Fresno, Calif. "Her whole ambition was helping people, so she would care deeply about this."

The Barbara McDowell Pro Bono Initiative unveiled this week by Drinker Biddle & Reath will give the Philadelphia firm's lawyers time and credit for doing unpaid legal work. Echoing McDowell's own practice, the pro bono attorneys will seek cases of more than singular significance.

As appellate advocacy director at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, for instance, McDowell had represented poor clients threatened with eviction. Her goal was to protect not only the individual client but others finding themselves in similar situations. The new pro bono initiative will be doing the same.

"We will be finding cases that have precedential value, that will change many people's lives," said Drinker Biddle partner Jerry Hartman, who will head the initiative.

Hartman met McDowell on a blind date. In 2000, they married. It was the second marriage for both.

At the time of their wedding, McDowell was serving in the solicitor general's office. For a lawyer, it doesn't get any better.

After attending Fresno State for two years — her parents didn't want her caught up in the social turmoil then roiling the University of California, Berkeley — McDowell transferred to George Washington University. She graduated from Yale Law School.

Representing the U.S. government, McDowell argued 18 cases before the Supreme Court. Some happened to be acutely relevant for the San Joaquin Valley, as when she defended an agricultural promotion program. Others were achingly technical, as when she took on a telecommunications dispute.

McDowell worked in the solicitor general's office from 1997 to 2004, when she left to establish the Legal Aid Society's appellate program. The move came with a pay cut as well as a big opportunity cost. McDowell might have instead cashed in her high-level government experience at a blue-chip law firm.

Of course, McDowell acknowledged at the time, Hartman's own successful corporate law practice made it easier for her to start representing the poor.

Diagnosed with brain cancer in late 2007, McDowell continued working at the Legal Aid Society for as long as she could. Chemotherapy sapped her. Steroids smudged her naturally graceful lines. A wig did her no justice. Finally, her mother said, McDowell realized around Thanksgiving that it was time to step down.

"She was fighting so hard," said Joyce McDowell, 85.

Through her will, Barbara McDowell funded a social justice program at her church. She also left money to endow the appellate advocacy position she formerly held at the Legal Aid Society. The new pro bono initiative, though, came together only after her death.

Hartman said he and other Drinker Biddle attorneys are now casting a net for "five strong cases" to kick off the program. Participating attorneys will be freed up to work on the anything from death penalty challenges to immigration and housing.

"We'll be looking for a resolution that will be to the advantage of the underprivileged," Hartman said.


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