CBF Morsch Award Continues to Recognize Extraordinary Legal Aid Attorneys
CBF Report August 2015
Each year, the CBF awards the Thomas H. Morsch Public Service Award, the premier public recognition for long-time legal aid and public interest law attorneys in Chicago. Recently, Chicago’s legal aid community received some great news when Tom Morsch and his family committed to continue their generous endowment of this prestigious award for an additional five years.
Morsch has received much-deserved recognition over the years for his tireless pro bono efforts and exemplary leader- ship in the legal community on access to justice issues. As a longtime partner at Sidley Austin and pro bono leader within the firm, he was one of the earliest advocates for getting private law firms to commit to pro bono service. Yet Morsch always felt that the private bar received a disproportionate amount of recognition for their pro bono contributions com- pared to the lawyers who had dedicated their careers to public interest law, often at great financial sacrifice.
During his time as President of the CBF in the mid-1990s, Morsch got to know some of the lawyers doing excellent work at Chicago’s pro bono and legal aid organizations every day outside of the spotlight. At the close of his two-year term, Morsch wanted to find a way to recognize extraordinary public interest lawyers. So, in partnership with the CBF, he created the Thomas H. Morsch Public Service Award. The award includes a substantial cash prize to recipients, thanks to a generous endowment from the Morsch family.
It always annoyed me that the people who did pro bono work at large corporate law firms were doing it on a lark; they were getting a lot of publicity and also were making a lot of money as lawyers, Morsch quipped. In the meantime, there were people that dedicated their whole lives to this stuff, usually working at nonprofits to help the poor or those discriminated against.
Since 1998, 19 outstanding lawyers from across the public interest legal spec- trum have been lauded with the Morsch Award. They are champions for the poor, homeless, or disabled, or have worked tirelessly to ensure basic rights such as access to healthcare or children’s safety. Morsch describes the perfect Morsch candidate as a top notch lawyer from a pro bono or legal aid organization who has made a demonstrable difference to Chicago’s legal community. He or she exhibits traits of perseverance and modesty, and is relatively unsung for their exemplary efforts.
On July 14, the most recent name was added to the list of deserving honorees at the CBA and CBF Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon: Phillip J.Mohr of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. Mohr has instilled a love for pro bono in thousands of Chicago attorneys and law students and made a significant impact in family law through casework and developing innovative projects.
Rene Heybach of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the first recipient of the Morsch Award in 1998, feels a sense of community with other Morsch recipients. There’s a great bond I feel with folks receiving that award, and that feeling of support, collegiality, and collaboration gets renewed every time the award gets presented. None of us can work alone, and none of us wins something alone.
Receiving the award was a like a stamp of validation forHeybach. During that period, you didn’t see your colleagues in public interest getting recognized in a meaningful way. Once the bar had a formal recognition of my work, it opened the door to consideration for other recognitions and benefits.
Several other recipients are now in leadership or director positions at their respective legal aid organizations. 2001 recipient Meg Benson (now Executive Director at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services) echoed Heybach’s sentiment: The award served as an affirmation that I was doing a good job, which allowed me to move forward and make, at times, hard decisions. This was, and remains, a high point in my career.
Believing that the recipients may be tempted to use the cash prize to do something altruistic with the money awarded or give it back to their organization, Morsch made it very clear that he wants them to spend it on something that might be considered frivolous, like the trip they’ve always dreamt of taking, but put off for financial reasons.
Several have sent the Morsch family postcards from around the world: Benson’s family spent a week in London and Paris and another family traversed Australia. TomYates, ExecutiveDirector at AIDS Legal Council and the 2013 award recipient, took the opportunity to visit his daughter, who was teaching English in Vietnam at the time. He and his wife were able to explore several parts of the country, including Saigon, the Mekong Delta and Hanoi. Others have put the money towards tangible necessities, like a second car.Heybach, for example, set aside half of the money for herself and invested the other half to help her young nephews through college.
TomMorsch’s son JimMorsch chairs the selection committee for the award. He noted, They’ve spent their whole career being charitable; it’s time they were rewarded personally for what they’ve done.