News Room

Public Interest Leadership Changes Reflect National Trend

June 15, 2015 – by Ben Seal, The Legal Intelligencer – The Philadelphia public interest community is in the midst of a flurry of leadership changes, and as longtime pillars of the community pass on their organizations’ torches, the same appears to be happening nationwide as a generational shift occurs.

“It’s a national phenomenon,” said Catherine Carr, who is leaving Community Legal Services after serving as its executive director for 20 years. “Just in the last few days, I’ve seen probably three ads around the country.”

Carr attributed the increase in national turnover to the aging of the baby-boom generation. Many public interest organizations were founded 40 or 50 years ago, she said, and their leaders are reaching the ends of their careers.

Patricia Pap, the executive director of Management Information Exchange, a nonprofit that for 15 years has consulted with legal aid organizations in their leadership searches, said she’s seeing the same phenomenon as boomers reach retirement age, leading to a round of departures.

Just last week, both CLS and the Education Law Center introduced their new executive directors, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia announced its new chief public defender. Juvenile Law Center is expected to name its new executive director later this month, replacing Robert Schwartz, who co-founded the organization and has been its leader since 1982.

Carr, who was a staff attorney at CLS for 11 years before becoming executive director, will be succeeded by Deborah L. Freedman, who had been deputy director and has previously led the organization on an interim basis.

Deborah Gordon Klehr will pick up the mantle at the ELC from Rhonda Brownstein, who joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in January after leading the ELC from 2012 to 2014. Klehr had been serving in the role on an interim basis.

And after 25 years at the helm of the Defender Association of Philadelphia and 40 years total with the organization, Ellen Greenlee has stepped aside, with Keir Bradford-Grey becoming the new chief public defender.

The new leaders said transitions such as these, which take several months to complete, offer an opportunity to assess an organization’s mission and find new ways to best achieve it.

“We’re constantly evaluating our work and making sure we’re focusing in the right areas,” Klehr, the new ELC chief, said. “We’ll spend some time together really thinking hard about not only the subject matter but also our strategies. I’m not sure that that will result in radical changes, but it’s important to go through the process.”

Freedman acknowledged she has “huge shoes to fill” at CLS and said her focus is on maintaining the organization’s effectiveness and raising money to meet that aim. Preparations for the organization’s upcoming 50th anniversary celebration, which is expected to include one large event and several smaller ones, will surely be a part of that fundraising effort.

Freedman also sees opportunities to increase the organization’s use of data in its work, to use the media and communications as a tool to achieve its goals, and to ensure CLS has a place in conversations about diversity and racial justice. She said Carr’s mentorship will be a key part of realizing those goals.

Klehr said she doesn’t expect the ELC’s priorities to change now that the interim designation has been removed from her title. She intends to maintain focus on equal access to education, stopping the school-to-prison pipeline and fighting for fair funding. But she is happy to take over on a permanent basis.

“I don’t think it impacts our substantive work, but it’s helpful for staff and for donors and for our colleague organizations to know that we are a stable organization with stable leadership,” Klehr said.

Getting to that point, though, wasn’t easy. Each of the organizations—the JLC, ELC and CLS—embarked on monthslong searches for their replacements, complete with search committees, multiple rounds of interviews with internal and external candidates, and, in some cases, additional assignments.

CLS used Management Information Exchange to help its committee’s search, which began in February. Ads were posted locally and nationally, on legal aid listservs and with minority groups, in an effort to attract a diverse pool of candidates. Ultimately, five were brought into the interview process and Freedman was chosen—though not before demonstrating a work plan and year-end goals.

The JLC is just weeks away from announcing Schwartz’s replacement, and has conducted a similarly national search, chaired by Temple University’s Beasley School of Law professor Robert Reinstein.

Marsha Levick, who co-founded the JLC along with Schwartz in 1975, said that although she and the organization will miss Schwartz’s leadership, she is optimistic, because change always presents an opportunity. A dynamic agenda has always been a part of the JLC’s story, she said.

“We actually don’t stay the course,” said Levick, who plans to stay in her deputy director role. “We’re constantly looking around the corner to see where opportunities are going to arise in the near future and try to stay ahead of them.”

Schwartz agreed that his replacement will benefit by avoiding stasis.

“We’ve been a successful organization, so a new leader will want to retain many of the approaches that have contributed to our success,” he said in an email. “But a leadership change is also an opportunity for fresh thinking and new ways to do business. Any new director will want to explore new directions while remaining true to the mission and strategies that are in place.”

Pap said the influx of new directors is likely to have a broader impact, in part because the next wave won’t have lived through the same experiences—the birth of legal aid in the 1960s and its institutionalization in the 1970s, for example. New leaders also will bring new ideas and be more likely to incorporate technology into their work, and will be better able to rely on the larger legal community than their predecessors were years ago.

“The relationship with private attorneys was very tenuous way back when, and now private attorneys are major partners in the delivery of legal aid to low-income clients,” Pap said.

Combined with the supportive and collaborative public interest community, which Klehr praised, the new wave of leaders is well positioned to carry on work of their predecessors.

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