Alan Lerner W'62, L'65, acclaimed practice professor of law at Penn Law School, devoted child advocate, and civil rights crusader, died Oct. 7. He was 68.
"Alan was many things — a caring father and husband, a youthful civil rights advocate, an accomplished big firm trial and employment attorney, a passionate advocate on behalf of children, an entrepreneurial clinical director, a devoted teacher and mentor, and last, but not least, a rabid Phillies fan," said Dean Michael A. Fitts. "He was the emotional and intellectual glue in connecting a wide variety of individuals and interests."
As founder and director of the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic, Lerner brought together law, medical, and social work students to study the legal system's response to child neglect and abuse.
Yael May C'06, L'09, a former clinic student, was just one of countless students who experienced Lerner's devotion. Her first assignment at the clinic was to represent a client who was denied Social Security Disability benefits before an administrative judge. Lerner played a critical role in helping May and her team win the case.
"The night before the hearing, Professor Lerner stayed in the clinic with me until midnight, coaching me on how to best deliver my opening and closing statements and giving me tips on conducting direct and cross-examination of the expert witnesses," recalled May. "The administrative judge ruled in our favor and reinstated our client's benefits on the spot. It was a great victory and I know that I never could have done this without Professor Lerner's continued guidance, encouragement, and confidence in me."
A Wharton and Penn Law graduate, Lerner began his legal career during his second year at Penn Law School when he traveled to Mississippi in 1964 to represent black citizens seeking the right to vote. After his admission to the Pennsylvania bar in 1968, Lerner joined Cohen Shapiro Polisher Shiekman & Cohen where he would spend 25 years as co-chair of the Labor and Employment Law Department and chair of the Ethics Committee. While Lerner enjoyed a successful career in representing clients in employment related problems, he longed for deeper academic inquiry and creativity than the pressures of private practice allowed.
He returned to his alma mater as a faculty member in 1993, and even with a significant pay cut and endless obligations he described the career change as "deeply gratifying."
Perhaps those that benefited most from Lerner's pursuits in academia were clients of the clinic. Talissa Riley first met Lerner when she was a 13-year-old foster child who had been recently returned to her mother. An eighth grader at an inner city school in Philadelphia, Riley was scared that she would fall prey to the influences surrounding her at home and in her neighborhood. But after Lerner paid several weekly home visits to Riley as her child advocate, he assigned her a youth mentor responsible for making sure all of her needs were met — from food to education. When she lamented over not having enough money to pay for her senior prom and higher education, Lerner hired her as a research assistant at the clinic.
Riley, now a student at Community College of Philadelphia, attributes much of her success to Lerner's guidance.
"I now can honestly say that I was blessed to have Mr. Lerner as one of the persons looking after me," said Riley. "He went out of his way to help me because he saw something special in me. I wasn't just another client or a number, but a person with a troubled family life. Mr. Lerner always treated me with respect and dignity, and showed compassion for my situation."
A memorial service was held in Lerner's honor on Nov. 17 in the Levy Conference Center, where family, friends, colleagues, and students from across the nation recalled Lerner's ever-present bowtie, devotion to his wife and family, quick and gentle wit, and great love for baseball. Colleague and friend Jeffery Pasek L'76 of Cozen O'Connor said Lerner was "so far ahead of the time in anticipating where civil rights law would go that he would make arguments that were not where the judges were yet ready to go." Louis Rulli, Penn Law practice professor and director of the Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies, shared one student's description of Lerner as "the godfather — he has the answers and connections."
"Alan's life was an incredible journey of supporting those who had less, of confronting discrimination and injustice, of protecting neglected and vulnerable children, of teaching all of us how to be better, caring individuals," said Rulli. "As everyone knows Alan was not tall in height, but whether in Mississippi during Freedom Summer or in a federal courtroom confronting the corruption of power, Alan stood exceedingly tall."
Professor Lerner is survived by his wife, Adelaide Ferguson; children, Jason and Rachael LeMasters; brothers, Benjamin and Carl; and three grandchildren.
To continue Professor Lerner's work, a fund has been established at Penn Law School to provide summer stipends to Penn Law students working in child advocacy. Donations to this fund may be made by check to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Law School Clinical Program, 3400 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19104.