Judge Tatel On Returning To His Pro Bono Roots

By Alison Knezevich | July 21, 2023, 4:07 PM EDT ·

Senior D.C. Circuit Judge David S. Tatel grew up wanting to become a scientist like his father was, but the 1960s "changed everything," he recently told Law360 as he prepares to retire from the bench.

man in suit

Judge David S. Tatel

Inspired by the civil rights movement as a college student in Michigan, he instead pursued a career in law. He went on to lead the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and its national counterpart, direct the civil rights office in President Jimmy Carter's Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and practice at private firms.

Now he is set to return to Hogan Lovells LLP as senior counsel after he steps down from the court later this year. Judge Tatel was a partner and founder of the education practice at the firm's predecessor, Hogan & Hartson, when President Bill Clinton in 1994 nominated him to the D.C. Circuit to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The 81-year-old Judge Tatel, who has been blind for five decades due to a genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa, also is working on a memoir about blindness and his life in the law. The book is set to be published next year by Little, Brown and Company.

When he heads back to Hogan Lovells, he will be part of the litigation practice, focusing on pro bono work.

The firm's pro bono program dates back to 1970, and Hogan Lovells calls it the country's first "stand-alone pro bono practice." In the program's first case, the firm represented the Black Panthers in lawsuits against the Washington, D.C., police department after officers raided the party's headquarters. In recent years, Hogan Lovells attorneys won a $75 million jury verdict in North Carolina on behalf of wrongfully convicted brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, and represented Common Cause in the Supreme Court voting rights case Moore v. Harper.

Judge Tatel, who took senior status in May 2022, spoke to Law360 this week about what he hopes to do at Hogan Lovells, how the turbulence of the 1960s changed his career path, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What factors led you to your decision to want to rejoin Hogan Lovells?

I would say there are two different factors that coalesced. I've served on the court for almost 30 years now. I love the work, and I feel like I'm at the top of my game. But I didn't want to stay around forever. The timing seemed right, in terms of the years I've been on the court and my age. And at the same time, this opportunity to return to Hogan — where I had spent many years before going on the court, including in the '70s in the pro bono program — the two came together at the right time. I couldn't leave the court without having someplace to go.

When you return to the firm, will you be doing all pro bono work?

I will be spending most of my time on pro bono, but I would also like to play a role in mentoring and training younger lawyers. I love that part of being a federal judge with my law clerks, and I would enjoy continuing that at the firm. If the education group is interested in having me help out, I might be interested in doing that.

As far as pro bono work, are there particular topics that you're especially interested in?

Simply based on the work I've done for the past 30 years, where I've spent so much time on voting rights and environmental cases — I'm deeply interested in both of those, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be equally interested in something else.

You've spoken over the years about lawyers' ethical obligation to provide services to people who can't afford it. You have previously said the profession was not doing enough in that area. Do you think the legal industry today is doing enough?

No, it's not.

Even with the Legal Services Corporation [which Judge Tatel helped establish in the 1970s], even with all the legal services lawyers around the country, 90% of poor people who need legal counsel can't get it. So you have a huge percentage of our population that essentially has no access to our courts.

If you go look at a housing court in any city, you see the same thing. On one side of the courtroom, you see an individual about to be evicted who's unrepresented. On the other side of the courtroom, you see the landlord's lawyer. Individuals don't have equal access to our court system, and I think that's one of the biggest problems faced by our legal system right now. And it's not just poor people; it's increasingly difficult for even middle class people to have access to the legal system because lawyers are so expensive.

I've always thought that the legal profession has a special obligation here because we have a monopoly on the practice of law, and I think with that monopoly, we have an obligation to make sure the legal system works for everyone.

You mentioned that you enjoy mentoring younger lawyers. What role have mentors played in your own career?

To the extent I've been successful, it's largely because as a young lawyer, I was very fortunate to develop role models and mentors quickly — people who played a major role in helping me learn the process, helping me become a lawyer and then helping me make key career decisions along the way.

For me, the key organization was the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. I got involved in that in the late '60s as director of the Chicago committee. [Judge Tatel later served in other roles, including director of the national committee.] I like to say I grew up with the Lawyers' Committee. It's in the Lawyers' Committee where I got my role models and mentors.

As a young lawyer, I was at Sidley Austin in Chicago and I was fortunate to work with some fine lawyers there.

And so mentoring and role models played critical roles in my own career. It's made all the difference for me. I had the right kind of people to guide me and help me along the way.

As a young person, you wanted to become a scientist. Why did you decide to go into law instead?

My father was a physicist, so I grew up in a world of science. He involved me in his work and took me on trips and expeditions. I always wanted to be a scientist.

When I went to the University of Michigan in 1959, I was headed for a career in science, but the '60s changed everything. The early '60s civil rights movement was at its height. Not only was I on campus at the University of Michigan, which had a lot of civil rights activities, but I was fortunate to have summer jobs in Washington as part of the Kennedy administration. Many of my friends had jobs in the [Department of Justice] Civil Rights Division.

I switched to political science and decided to go to law school to become a civil rights lawyer. I was captured by the 1960s and the excitement of what was happening in our country.

I've kept my interest in science all along. For about 20 years, I was on the Committee on Science, Technology and Law at the National Academy of Sciences. I co-chaired it for the past seven years. It is a really interesting committee of scientists, judges and lawyers, focusing on issues that fall at the intersection of law and science. That has consumed a great deal of my non-court time and actually been quite related to the work of the court because many of our cases have complex scientific records. The big environmental cases have a great deal of scientific evidence that you need to master, and so do other big cases. So I've kept my interest in science, it's just that I became a lawyer.

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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