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On Temple Lawyers, Mentorship, and Starbursts: Notes from the Breakfast of Champions

Temple Law alumna Rep. Donna Bullock ’03 and Temple Law alumna Rasheedah Phillips ’08. [Photo courtesy of Community Legal Services]

Before law school, I was a community organizer for the Children’s Defense Fund, a national child advocacy organization founded and directed by the extraordinary and inimitable civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman.  In her book, Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors, Edelman writes of “the crucial influences of the natural daily mentors” in her life, whom she refers to as “lanterns” who lit her path from her small hometown in Benettsville, South Carolina, to Spelman College, to Yale Law School, to the front lines of the civil rights struggle, to the founding of the Children’s Defense Fund.  Like Edelman, the path of my own career has been lit by mentors, who showed me what was possible and bolstered my confidence along the way.  I would not have decided to attend law school or pursued a public interest career were it not for my own mentors.  And I have done my best to light the path of others.  I am grateful that my role as a clinical professor at Temple Law affords me an ongoing opportunity to help light the path of our students and graduates, and in return my own path is brightened.

I began my legal career as at Community Legal Services (CLS), Philadelphia’s oldest and largest legal services agency.  On May 30, 2018, CLS, held its 29th annual Breakfast of Champions, sponsored by the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.  Founded in 1966 by the Philadelphia Bar Association, CLS has provided free legal services to over one million low-income Philadelphians.  The event features annual Equal Justice awards given to staff and supporters who have made a notable contribution to the CLS’s advocacy.  While the event was a special day for friends and supporters of Community Legal Services, it was also a special day for the Temple Law community and for me.

Temple Law has made an indelible mark on the Philadelphia legal community and our alumni never cease to inspire.  The first Equal Justice Award went to Temple Law alumnus and CLS Board Member Carlton Johnson ’84.  Mr. Johnson, a partner at the Archer Law Firm who previously served as the Chief Deputy City Solicitor of the Civil Rights Unit of the City of Philadelphia, spoke from the heart about why he believes so deeply in CLS’s mission.  Johnson shared that as a child, he was embarrassed that his own family relied on public benefits such as cash assistance and food stamps to survive.  “Had a resource like CLS been available to us, we would have benefited from the help…this is why CLS’s work matters so much … because it makes a real difference in the lives of real people.”

The next Equal Justice Award was announced by Temple Law alumna Donna Bullock ’03, Pennsylvania State Representative for the 195th District, and awarded to Temple Law alumna Rasheedah Phillips ’08.  As Representative Bullock explained in introducing Phillips:

After graduating from Temple Law School, Rasheedah began her career at Community Legal Services as a Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network MLK, Jr. fellow in 2008.   She earned her stripes working in the Family Advocacy Unit and the Child Care Law Project, before she landed in the Housing unit… there she proved to be a relentless, fearless advocate and an expert in subsidized housing law.    Her commitment to her clients and leadership and respect among her peers eventually led her to a promotion as Managing Attorney of the Housing Unit.  And she still found time to raise an amazing person, to become a published author, to run a community space for residents to tell their stories, and to create a whole organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting Afrofuturistic culture, art, and literature through creative events and creative writing.

 She’s been able to do this because, she’s actually a starburst— shining in every possible way and direction, using all the tools and mediums at her disposal to reach out, to pull in, to help others, and to be impactful.

 Representative Bullock too could also be described as a starburst.  After graduating Temple Law School, she too began her career at Community Legal Services, before eventually entering private practice, working in government and ultimately successfully campaigning to be State Representative.  In the Pennsylvania State Legislature, she serves on numerous committees and caucuses, showing tremendous leadership.  Both Representative Bullock and Ms. Phillips share the experience of having grown up in poverty, in circumstances not far removed from those of many CLS clients.

But beyond the individual achievements of the speakers and awardees, the event was also a special day for me as a Temple Law faculty member.  I too started my career at CLS, where I worked with some of the most brilliant, tenacious, and creative advocates I have ever met.  Donna Bullock and I were ‘baby lawyers’ together —  while she helped women pull themselves out of poverty by starting child care businesses, and I helped keep families together by representing parents in child welfare cases.  Both of us were fortunate to meet and mentor Rasheedah Phillips while she was a student at Temple Law.  Ms. Phillips interned with me in the Family Advocacy Unit, working to educate teenage parents about their rights.  She later took over the Child Care Law Project, which Representative Bullock had started.  Both of these women are not only colleagues and friends to me, they each provide me continued inspiration.

As attorneys, none of us paved our way alone.  As Ms. Phillips stated,

It wasn’t until I was introduced to lawyers like Rep. Bullock and Sarah Katz, former CLS attorneys, who showed me that shifting and breaking these negative cycles was a career, and that there was a place in the law for the sort of radical, community lawyering that I was envisioning, a place for people like me who would not be satisfied with the status quo, a place for people who wanted to remain deeply connected to and serve the kind of communities they come from or call home. 

I frequently say that one of the most satisfying aspects of my role at Temple Law is that each year I create new colleagues.  The students that I teach, supervise and mentor enter the practice of law. Not only am I privileged to help shape the arc of their careers, but not infrequently we have opportunities to collaborate or support each other’s legal work. It is precisely these types of opportunities for mentorship which keep me inspired as a teacher and a lawyer.  My own path is brighter for each lantern I light.

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