Some children inherit their brown eyes, curly hair or left-handedness from generations past. Mary Gay Scanlon, L’84, inherited the public-interest gene.
Scanlon’s maternal grandfather, Leo J. Yehle, was a family-court judge who in the 1960s helped write the first juvenile justice code for New York State. Her paternal grandfather, Daniel Scanlon Sr., worked on the commission that built the bridge across the St. Lawrence River. And her father, Daniel Scanlon Jr., served in the Kennedy White House and volunteered with Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign for Senate and the presidency. All three maintained active pro bono practices in their communities.
“I always assumed public service would be part of my legal practice,” Scanlon says. And so it has.
A former attorney with the Education Law Center of Philadelphia, where she helped implement special education laws, Scanlon is now executive director of the Pro Bono Program at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. In that role, she spends her workday developing pro bono opportunities and playing matchmaker between colleagues who are willing to provide free legal assistance and clients in desperate need of that assistance.
Whether it’s participating in a class-action suit to restore federal lunch funds to Philadelphia schoolchildren, petitioning the German government on behalf of Holocaust survivors seeking reparations, or writing voting-rights manuals in Utah, Scanlon takes pains to recruit the right attorney for each case.
With 550 lawyers in the firm’s 12 offices nationwide, she has a deep pool from which to choose.
Scanlon’s first real taste of the public interest world came in 1985 as a newly minted lawyer, when the Support Center for Child Advocates chose her to represent an abused and neglected 11-year-old in dependency proceedings. Removed from her home after teachers discovered her stepfather was abusing her, Denise was living in a temporary facility. She was mute, terrified and traumatized.
Still finding her way through the legal community herself, Scanlon slowly won the child’s trust, sitting by Denise’s side as she testified in court and representing her in proceedings with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.
A quarter-century later the two remain in contact, Denise having managed over the years to earn her GED (General Educational Development degree), find steady work and raise three children.
“She calls and writes me every so often, on Mother’s Day and the like, and has been to our house for Christmas a couple of years,” says Scanlon.
The experience drove home for this practitioner the importance of providing a voice for those who might otherwise have none. Even as she parcels out the pro bono cases to other attorneys in her Center City office, she makes sure to assign a few to herself every year.
“Pro bono work is a basic part of being a lawyer, something you do as part of the profession,” Scanlon maintains.
“We have an obligation to share. Our system doesn’t work if people don’t have access, if they don’t have lawyers. I’ve been very fortunate in my life and in my career, and a lot of people haven’t been that lucky.”
Sometimes her role is as basic as explaining to a frightened client where he’ll sit in the courtroom, or using simple words to review what the judge will ask during the proceedings. Sometimes it’s as humane as symbolically holding a hand or offering a shoulder, as she is doing these days with Miriam, a young woman from Guinea with sickle-cell anemia. Scanlon is fighting to win Miriam legal permanent residency before her juvenile status expires at age 21.
Always, it’s as fundamental as using the tools she has as an attorney to fix a problem.
Scanlon is particularly proud of the work Ballard Spahr is doing as a partner with the Wills for Heroes Foundation, which provides legal documents free of charge to the nation’s first responders. Since its inception just after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the organization has provided estate-planning documents to firefighters and police officers in more than 20 states.
“It’s cool, very cool,” Scanlon said of the project. “Over 100 people here at Ballard have been at clinics where more than 1,900 wills were produced. The firefighters and other first responders and their families really appreciate it.”
And the Philadelphia legal community really appreciates the work she does. In 1994, Scanlon received the Fidelity Award.
It is the Philadelphia Bar Association’s highest honor for public service.