A Time to Act: Putting Awareness into Action

It appears that for new law graduates and some experienced attorneys, 2020 will bear some unfortunate resemblance to 2009, with additional challenges and potential opportunities. Because the legal employment market has a tendency to be a lagging indicator in the economy, when the great recession of 2008 occurred, legal job opportunities had their biggest decrease in 2009. Many graduates had offers rescinded and still others had them postponed for a year. This year is more dramatic, with the marketplace for new attorneys in some ways more difficult to address. A number of large law firms have already postponed their new associate start dates until January 2021. Some states have held bar exams while others have not. If you are a new graduate, you may want to consider taking the market into your own hands. If you are a licensed attorney, you may be facing a layoff and a need to find another position. In this time of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, a great deal needs to be done. Here is one successful road map.

Founding a Not-for-Profit Law Firm

When I served as a resource for a Missouri Bar Association panel regarding employment opportunities in the fall of 2009, a new graduate at the meeting announced during the Q&A, “I don’t know what the rest of my class is going to do for work, but I am starting a not-for-profit law firm with two of my classmates.” Intrigued by the announcement, I tracked down the questioner and arranged a meeting. As a clinic law student, Thomas Harvey had seen the gaps that existed between the many poor people in need of legal assistance and its availability. Legal Services was prohibited from representing clients in criminal matters, and the public defender system was not staffed to provide representation for misdemeanors or low-level felonies. Due to his commitment and foresight, ArchCity Defenders received its 501(c)3 status and was launched in the fall of 2009.

Modeled on the holistic representation of Bronx Defenders, ArchCity was committed to assisting clients with issues beyond legal concerns that might include housing, substance abuse, or mental health. The three principals, Thomas Harvey, Michael-John Voss, and John McAnnar, worked other legal jobs to pay bills, and in the evenings represented indigent clients in the municipal courts of St. Louis. Here, they worked in a patchwork system where 81 municipalities had their own courts to enforce individual municipal codes across their slivers of the region.

Between 2009 and 2013, ArchCity operated on a shoestring budget. A 2013 contract with the federal government and the city of St. Louis to provide legal services to the homeless and at-risk citizens provided much-needed financial stability. It became clear that legal services to the homeless were as important as drug and alcohol counseling, job training, or housing eligibility. Without the resolution of legal cases, the homeless would neither be able to obtain housing or work. The lawyers appearing in municipal courts throughout the metropolitan area were seeing the same issues everywhere, some of which were a clear violation of their clients’ constitutional rights. These white male attorneys were also aware that the lawyers and judges who appeared in court were overwhelmingly white, and the clients, sitting in small crowded courtrooms, were overwhelmingly Black.

In August 2014, with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, things changed. Keenly aware that the national spotlight was focused on their region, Thomas Harvey, ArchCity’s executive director, quickly completed an in-progress report and released it to the media. This municipal courts white paper, based upon a two-year court watching project, additional research, and the work of the principals, provided the basis for a national discussion. The data in the paper provided the background necessary to inform the media, hungry for information about the protests, and the public of injustices that had been festering for decades. Residents were being used as a cash register for communities unable to sustain their budgets without taking money from their residents. It documented the lack of indigency testing and the jailing of people too poor to pay fines in what were modern-day debtor’s prisons.

Growth and Development

In the wake of Ferguson, ArchCity received increased contributions and public recognition from the media, individuals, and foundations. In the fall of 2014, they were contacted by a third-year law student at Harvard Law School who expressed a strong desire to join ArchCity through the Skadden Fellows program. Blake Strode, a native St. Louisan, joined in the summer of 2015 to work on impact litigation. It became clear that to foster systemic changes in the courts, lawsuits should be filed to alter the way municipal courts were run. The court-watching project had uncovered that a prosecutor in one municipality might be a judge in another municipality and that local residents could find themselves shuttled from one court to another for outstanding misdemeanor warrants. The mere presence of an attorney on behalf of a resident began to change the disposition of their cases. In 2016, a federal judge approved a $4.7 million settlement in a case to compensate people jailed in one municipality for their inability to pay court fines and fees. This settlement provided ArchCity with attorney fees that made it possible to hire additional staff, and caused several other municipalities to make changes in their policies.

Throughout the growth of ArchCity Defenders, efforts were made to partner with national law firms who could provide litigation support and with law schools across the country to engage students in summer and school break internships. The executive director spoke across the country to engage with law schools and the media, partnered with other like-minded legal organizations, and raised ArchCity’s profile in ways that garnered both national recognition and awards.


One of the goals of the white male founders of ArchCity Defenders was to bring Black leadership into the organization. Thomas Harvey announced plans to leave ArchCity and move to California in 2018 to join his wife. With a comprehensive job description and the input of current staff, it became clear that Blake Strode, an African American lawyer, should be the new executive director. The board of directors was expanded and added more Black members. All hiring for new and existing positions now focused on expanding representation on the staff that more closely mirrored the client population.

From its inception in 2009, in a span of 10 years, ArchCity Defenders became an organization with an annual budget of more than $1.5 million, a paid staff of more than 25, a robust internship program, and a significant profile in the region. Funding is based upon individual, foundation, and grant donations, in-kind donation of services, and legal fees from cases won or settled on behalf of clients. One of the unique elements that differentiates ArchCity from other nonprofit firms is the holistic advocacy services that include civil and criminal legal representation, social services, impact litigation, policy and media advocacy, and community collaboration.

What Can You Do?

Across the country, we are dealing with a wide variety of issues that are similar to those that fostered the creation and growth of ArchCity Defenders, including debtor’s prisons, and failure to consider an individual’s ability to pay fines and fees. Millions of Americans face eviction, and possible homelessness, and many others still in their residences are dealing with losing their utilities. Protesters across the country have been arrested and charged with violations that conflict with their constitutional rights. The vast majority of people facing these issues are either members of racial minority groups, their allies, or people that simply do not have the means to hire an attorney based upon their income or a recent job loss. If you are a new attorney, or an experienced attorney in a job search, this kind of work can provide you with valuable experience that can supplement your current credentials. What can you do?

  • Identify nonprofit law firms in your community where you could contribute legal assistance as a volunteer or a staff member. Talk with social services organizations and community organizers about their legal needs.
  • While bar examinations and licensure form a patchwork quilt across the country, almost every state offers a provision by which new graduates can practice under special rules and supervision by licensed attorneys. Learn what your state is doing.
  • Contact existing nonprofit law firms providing assistance to under served populations and learn more about them. Early in its development, the ArchCity founders took a road trip and met with other organizations that had a similar mission. In subsequent years, these relationships provided technical and case support.
  • Develop partnerships with law schools in your geographic region, and consider working with law school clinics and law student interns.
  • Start your own firm or nonprofit organization. Seek the input of existing nonprofit law firms. Most are happy to provide technical and organizational assistance.

The needs in our communities, particularly for the representation of poor people and Black and brown citizens, are enormous. If you are an experienced attorney, ABA Model Rule 6.1 requires you to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year. At this moment, lawyers have a unique opportunity to intervene on behalf of those with fewer resources, and people who have been under served and under-represented. Many of us have been impacted by the growing knowledge of racial inequities, and recognition of disparities. This is a moment to intervene and no one group has more power to make a difference than lawyers. Now is the time.

Editor’s Note – This article republished with the author’s permission – with first publication on ABA Law Practice Division, Law Practice Today.

Posted in: Civil Liberties, Continuing Legal Education, Free Speech, Leadership, Legal Education, Legal Profession, Legal Research