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D.C. Bar Remembers Legal Legend Stephen Pollak

February 20, 2024

By John Murph

The D.C. Bar joins the legal community in mourning the loss of civil rights champion Stephen J. Pollak, former president of the Bar and who many considered the “godfather” of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. Pollak passed away on February 3 at age 95.

Steve PollakWhen Pollak joined the Bar in 1972, he immediately jumped into volunteer leadership work, serving as member of the Board of Governors for two terms, as secretary, and then as president (1980–1981). At the Bar, Pollak is best remembered as leading the team that created what is now the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center, the largest provider of pro bono legal help in the District of Columbia.

In the 1990s, serving as chair of the Bar’s Public Service Activities Review Committee tasked to assess the Bar’s existing pro bono program, Pollak and the committee members traveled to different parts of the country to learn what worked and what improvements could be made.

“Steve’s goal was to find the most effective and high-quality program for the D.C. Bar. He recommended, and the Board adopted, fundamental and lasting changes to how the Bar would do pro bono,” said former D.C. Bar CEO Katherine Mazzaferri. The outcome of Pollak’s far-reaching exploration is reflected in how the Pro Bono Center has operated in the past four decades.

“One concept was to leverage the small, but very expert, pro bono legal staff to be available to the volunteer lawyers. Another concept was to have large numbers of lawyers and clients in one place (the clinic model) and to have the cases organized and prescreened by the Pro Bono [Center] staff, all to make good use of volunteer time. We called this the ‘multiplier’ effect. Often volunteers were teamed up with legal services provider lawyers serving as expert mentors, which created important relationships between law firms and legal service providers,” Mazzaferri added.

Standing Up for Justice

Pollak began his legal career in Washington, D.C., in 1956 at Covington & Burling LLP, where he worked on various antitrust, libel, and communications matters as well as on pro bono cases focused on improving houing for those living in poverty.

As the United States entered the tumultuous 1960s, Pollak stood at the forefront of the fight for racial justice. In 1961 he left private practice to work for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), where he first served as special assistant to the solicitor general until 1964. That year he also acted as legal counsel to President Johnson’s Task Force on the War Against Poverty.

In 1962 Pollak helped advance the civil rights movement by aiding then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy in enforcing a court order that upheld James Meredith’s right to enroll as the first Black student at the University of Mississippi.

In 1965, on Pollak’s first day as first assistant to John Doar, assistant attorney general in charge of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, he was sent to Selma, Alabama, after state troopers attacked Black civil rights leaders and demonstrators peacefully marching across Edmund Pettus Bridge to demand voting rights. Pollak helped ensure that Alabama’s state and local officials complied with a federal court order permitting the demonstrators to march to the state capital.

“The big concern was that there would be disruptions and violence. The Alabama National Guard had been federalized, and there was a significant National Guard presence along the march route and especially in Montgomery and at the State Capitol at the march’s culmination,” Pollak said in an interview with the D.C. Bar in 2000. “Public order was maintained. I’ll never forget the huge throng in front of the state capitol to greet the marchers. It was ‘electric’ and had the feel of an important, history-making day.”

That protest was a catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Pollak worked with counsel for Senators Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen in drafting a compromise bill that be­came the landmark law, which Pollak called “the pinnacle of my government service.”

In 1967 Pollak served as advisor to the president for National Capital Affairs, and then as assistant attorney general of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division between December 1967 and January 1969. Pollak recalled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 as a high point of his time at DOJ.

Returning to private practice in 1969, Pollak became a partner at Shea & Gardner, which later merged with Goodwin Procter LLP. He served as senior counsel at the firm from 2004 until his retirement.

Tireless Advocate

Throughout his five decades of practice, Pollak was actively involved in the legal services community in Washington, D.C., serving in various leadership roles at the District of Columbia Bar Foundation, the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, among a long list of organizations.

“Steve was laser-focused on seeking justice and, during his tenure, consistently urged the commission to get to the heart of what might have the best chance of moving us closer to meaningful progress,” said DC Access to Justice Commission Executive Director Nancy Drane. “He knew that our justice problems were vast, but rather than being overwhelmed by that, he encouraged us to prioritize the work that would have the greatest impact on access to justice in our city. The commission will and must keep Steve’s example in mind as we continue to address the urgent justice work before us.”

Pollak’s leadership at the DC Bar Foundation, including serving on a committee tasked to look into how the foundation could be more effective in raising funds to support legal services providers, is among his enduring legacies, according to Mazzaferri.

“Steve was unrelenting in pursuit of high-quality legal services for those unable to pay for attorneys. He did the legwork necessary to understand the problems and put his very considerable talents to work identifying solutions,” Mazzaferri said. “He understood the sometimes difficult relationships in our legal community and put his credentials on the line for the goal of strengthening access to justice. He was a force. And he had very high standards. He reviewed documents with care, treating each one as though it were going to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center Director Kelli Neptune paid tribute to Pollak for “chart[ing] the course of the Pro Bono Center with a vision that illuminates our path today.”

“His tireless advocacy and relentless commitment to advancing pro bono service left an indelible mark on our organization and the D.C. legal community. Steve’s influence will resonate for generations to come, a testament to his enduring legacy of service, compassion, and unwavering dedication to justice.” 

James Sandman, distinguished lecturer and senior consultant to the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, said Pollak “spent a lifetime, right up to his last days, giving back — to his country, to his community, to the legal profession, to hundreds and hundreds of individual people.”

“He was an important role model for me, both as a lawyer and as a human being. I aspire to be like Stephen Pollak,” added Sandman, a commissioner at the D.C. Access to Justice Commission.

Lifetime of Service

Pollak received numerous awards for his distinguished service, including the D.C. Bar Frederick B. Abramson Award in 1992 and 1994, the 1992 Wiley A. Branton Award from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the 2001 Thurgood Marshall Award from the D.C. Bar, the 2006 Justice Potter Stewart Award from the Council for Court Excellence, and the 2023 Lloyd Cutler Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“One of the frustrations you encounter in the practice of law is that you have a lot of demands being made on you, and sometimes they are difficult to satisfy. But I’ve always felt that a full plate is best. So I intend to keep on going,” Pollak said in 2000.

Stephen John Pollak was born March 22, 1928, in Chicago to Maurice August Pollak, a real estate businessperson, and Laura Kramer Pollak, who was active in the League for Women Voters and served as a member of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. The family later moved to Highland Park, Illinois.

After high school, Pollak served in the U.S. Navy during the Truman administration. The Navy financed Pollak’s attendance at Dartmouth College, where he studied economics, history, and government. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1950, he returned to the military at the beginning of the Korean War. In 1953 he enrolled at Yale Law School, where he graduated in 1956 cum laude. While in law school, he was also the managing editor for the Yale Law Journal.

Pollak married Ruth Scheinfeld of Milwaukee in 1951. Together they had two sons and two daughters.

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