Philly's Juvenile Law Center: Founded by Four Grads Fresh out of Law School

Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center, which was founded  in 1976 by a group of idealistic Temple Law Grads and has evolved to become a nationally recognized leader in children’s rights issues, is profiled in the Wilkes Barre Times-Leader.

JLC’s founding members, two of whom still run the organization, made considerable sacrifices to pay their own bills while cultivating the fledgling – and fundless – organization’s growth: writing briefs for other attorneys, refereeing youth sports, and rooming with old college friends.

Co-founder Marsha Levick, now JLC’s legal director, notes:

“We were all young adults coming of age in the ’60s, which was defined by the civil rights and women’s rights movements. There was a notion that lawyers could make a difference,” Levick said. “Part of it was just naivety. We were so idealistic we didn’t think we needed to be paid … I don’t think we thought much about how much money we didn’t have … We were all friends and were excited [sic] to be creating this project.”

Over the years, and with a number of notable legal victories under its belt, JLC is now a national leader in promoting systemic juvenile-justice reform and educating advocates throughout the U.S.

The center [has] worked with various groups to try to turn the tide in juvenile justice away from punishment and back to rehabilitation. It [has] held training seminars across the country and created a Web site devoted to zero-tolerance polices … Today the center maintains a balance between juvenile delinquency and child welfare work. Its attorneys still represent a small number of children in delinquency and dependency court, but its focus is on the larger issues that impact the juvenile justice system…

The story paints a remarkable picture of determination and teamwork among a group of young, committed attorneys whose persistence has led to broad-based recognition and remarkable successes for the cause they serve. It could in many ways serve as an inspiration to today’s law grads who aspire to public-interest careers.  Of course, the landscape looks considerably different for emerging public-interest leaders now than it did in the 1970s. 

First, law school tuition is markedly higher now than it was then.  In most cases law school grads emerge with a large amount of debt which begins weighing upon them just months after the bar exam.  Debt can literally crush the aspirations of would-be public interest lawyers.  This is why it is so important for tomorrow’s public interest advocates to become financially literate regarding debt and seek out ways to keep it under control today.

Secondly, whereas there were relatively few public-interest law offices in the late 1960s and early ’70s (many were founded then), today the infrastructure to serve low-income and socially marginalized clients is more robust – not necessarily well-funded, but more robust.  It is very important for public-interest organizations to avoid duplicating services.  This and other inefficient behaviors ultimately result in fewer clients being effectively served and in funding being even more scarce.  So before founding a new organization, a junior public interest advocate may want to familiarize themselves with the community of providers that is already serving clients, and get experience in that community.  Then, a public interest lawyer may identify a need that could be served by creating a new initiative or founding a new organization.

1 Comment »

  1. helen eves said,

    April 17, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Congratulation on your sucess. The program on Thursday in Philadelphia by the Southern Poverty Law Center was inspirational. I support it & JLC. Best regards to Bob Schwartz.

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