2017 – Daniel J. Lesser
Dan Lesser began his legal career working at top private law firms, but early on decided to leave the private sector to serve low-income people and the cause of equal access to justice. He began his legal aid career at LAF, quickly becoming an expert on public benefits. After new Legal Services Corporation rules restricted policy advocacy at LAF, he left to join the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in 1996. Even though the Shriver Center lacked a clear funding base at the time, he made the move because of his belief that people in poverty must have strong professional representation on issues affecting them and their communities.
At the Shriver Center, Dan serves as the director of the Economic Justice Unit and the coordinator of the Responsible Budget Coalition. Throughout his time there, Dan has played a major role in the passage of many significant laws and regulations, helping to create a child-care system that allows low-income parents to work and to get additional education and training, devising state benefits programs to support refugees and asylees, and advocating to pass a state budget.
For many years, Dan has led food and nutrition advocacy efforts in Illinois. Most recently, his work led Illinois to expand SNAP eligibility by 80,000 people and to stagger food stamp issuances over the course of every month to ensure stores can maintain an adequate supply of fresh produce.
Despite the impact of Dan’s work, he has always sought to remain in the background. Those who know Dan say he is remarkably humble and seeks no recognition for his work, preferring to get things done out of the public eye. He has also been a tireless mentor to numerous law students, new lawyers and other advocates. Over his 30-year public interest law career, his extensive contributions have improved the lives of countless Illinoisans, making him a deeply deserving recipient of the 2017 Morsch Award.