Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 35

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT

BARBARA
KAGAN

A Pro Bono Service Pioneer

Interview by Sarah Kellogg

F

rom dreaming of becoming a "storefront" lawyer
early on to closing out her career as the public
service counsel for Steptoe & Johnson LLP,
Barbara Kagan has cultivated a legal life defined
by service to those who need pro bono representation
to preserve their rights and to find justice. Championing
and overseeing Steptoe's pro bono practice since 1992,
Kagan is a pioneer, developing innovative programs
inside and outside the firm that have become national
models for pro bono work and encouraging the growth
of volunteer efforts among law firms. She retired in
June, capping 27 years of service at Steptoe.
Did you become an attorney with the idea that you would spend your
professional life working in a service capacity?
When I went to law school, I had this vision of being what they called in the '70s
a "storefront" lawyer. My clients would come into my storefront, and I'd be able
to help them. It was sort of a high school vision. Back then, I thought people
were going to law school to fight Wall Street. I was shocked to find out that
most law students really wanted to work on Wall Street.
When I graduated from law school, I found a government job, and I was
happy to do it. I liked public service. Then I went to work for the Federal Trade
Commission to work on national advertising enforcement, which sounded
really interesting to me. I did it when President Ronald Reagan had just come
into office.
Eventually, I decided to go into private practice. I had a loose affiliation with a
small practitioner. I did some criminal, some civil, and all the rest of it. By definition, it was largely pro bono. The business of being in business was pretty
taxing for me. I considered changing careers, but I didn't want to give
up the law altogether.
What were the early years at Steptoe like as you were conceiving the
firm's pro bono practice, especially before firms were even operating
these programs?
Steptoe was the second law firm in the city to hire an attorney to run a pro
bono program on a full-time basis. We were the fourth or fifth in the country
Photo courtesy of Steptoe & Johnson LLP

to do it. It was all really new to me, so my first steps were to figure out how to
navigate the system. I didn't know what I was doing, and I was making most of
it up from scratch. Now people look at what we did and describe it as paving
the way. It didn't feel like I was going into uncharted territory like that, but I did
feel that we could do pretty much whatever we wanted to do.
I would get a call from a legal services provider looking for an attorney to staff
a case. The balkanization of legal services in this city was dumbfounding at the
time. Being an outsider and a newcomer, my first reaction was to wonder why
legal services providers and law firms didn't connect more. I started talking to
everyone, and I met with attorneys in our firm to try to find the cases that fit their
interests. At the beginning, I knew every case everyone was working on in the
office, sort of off the top of my head. Then the firm got bigger, and our pro bono
work got bigger, and it just kind of grew over the years.
Did you experience a turning point in terms of pro bono work and its
acceptance by your law firm and the legal community?
Over the years it became easier and easier to get people involved in pro bono
cases. Early on, there were some law students who would ask about pro bono
and our firm in campus interviews. Some were afraid to talk about volunteer
work because it would seem like they weren't fully dedicated to the purpose
of the firm. The students who felt that pro bono was very important were not
going to interview if a firm didn't have a pro bono program.
What made the difference is when American Lawyer came up with its list of top
law firms, and pro bono work was a third of the score. At that point, there was
a tremendous proliferation of firms hiring pro bono counsel, coordinators, and
partners. The whole industry was born. It was interesting to see them all come
in behind what we had been doing all along.
How has the character of pro bono work changed over the years in law
firms?
When I came in, the big law firms were doing the large, impactful pro bono
cases. Large firms did large cases. They were the only ones that had the capacity
for that. Cases that had a high profile were attractive, and attorneys were very
interested. As firms were growing, however, that kind of work was not possible
for every lawyer in the firm, mostly because of the time commitment and the
types of cases. Everyone can't work on a death penalty case or a major civil
rights action.
In our firm, we broadened the spectrum of pro bono opportunities available to
our attorneys. That's why it became even more important to have someone in
my role. There are a lot of needs in legal services, and you have to find the right
cases and place them with the right attorneys. I [handled] everything at the
retail level. There are a lot of firms that have listservs, and they send out an email

*

JULY/AUGUST 2019

*

WASHINGTON LAWYER 35


https://www.dcbar.org/

Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019

Digital Extras
Your Voice
From Our President
Practice Management
Calendar of Events
Leading The Bar In Pursuit Of Service
2019 D.C. Bar Election Coverage
Our Membership: Adapting To A Changing Legal Landscape
Finding Community In Voluntary Bars
Bar Business: Annual Report
Member Spotlight
Enforcing the Rules feature
Global & Domestic Outlook
Worth Reading
Media Bytes
Attorney Briefs
Ask The Ethics Experts
Disciplinary Summaries
The Pro Bono Effect
Community & Connections
Last Word
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Cover1
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Cover2
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 1
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 2
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 3
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Digital Extras
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Your Voice
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - From Our President
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 7
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Practice Management
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 9
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Calendar of Events
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 11
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Leading The Bar In Pursuit Of Service
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 13
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 14
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 15
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 2019 D.C. Bar Election Coverage
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 17
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Our Membership: Adapting To A Changing Legal Landscape
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 19
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Enforcing the Rules feature
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 21
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 22
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 23
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Finding Community In Voluntary Bars
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 25
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 26
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 27
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 28
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Bar Business: Annual Report
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 30
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 31
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 32
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 33
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Member Spotlight
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 35
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 36
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 37
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Global & Domestic Outlook
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 39
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Worth Reading
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Media Bytes
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Attorney Briefs
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 43
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Ask The Ethics Experts
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Disciplinary Summaries
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - The Pro Bono Effect
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 47
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 48
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 49
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Community & Connections
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - 51
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Last Word
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Cover3
Washington Lawyer - July/August 2019 - Cover4
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/julyaugust2019
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/june2019
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/may2019
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/april2019
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/march2019
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/january2019
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/november2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/november2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/november2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/august2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/august2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/June/July2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/april2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/March2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/February2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/january2018
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/december2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/November2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/september 2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/september 2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/august2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/july2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/June2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/may2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/april2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/march2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/february2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/january2017
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/december2016
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/november2016/
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/october2016
http://washingtonlawyer.dcbar.org/september2016
http://www.nxtbookMEDIA.com