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A remarkable leader who redefined what it means to be a lawyer

April 21, 2020

Howard Lesnick, a beloved professor who redefined what it means to be a lawyer and built the foundation for the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s nationally recognized public service program, passed away on Sunday, April 19th. He was 88.

Howard Lesnick, a beloved professor who redefined what it means to be a lawyer and built the foundation for the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s nationally recognized public service program, passed away on Sunday, April 19th. He was 88.

Lesnick, who became the Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law emeritus in 2016, spent 50 years at the Law School, forging an unforgettable legacy steeped in kindness and humanity.

“Howard never forgot the true meaning of legal practice,” said Ted Ruger, Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law. “He intuitively understood that lawyers had a professional responsibility to help the less fortunate gain access to justice and made a point of instilling those values into the culture of the Law School.”

Ruger continued, “He had an immeasurable impact on Penn Law. Hundreds and hundreds of students are working in the public interest due to his influence. He brought glory to our institution and everyone who knew him was better for it.”

Lesnick, a founder and past president of the Society of American Law Teachers, secured many laurels during his career. In 2003, the American Association of Law Schools recognized his efforts to make public service an integral part of legal education. Six years later, Penn Law School memorialized Lesnick’s contributions with the creation of the annual Howard Lesnick Pro Bono Award, presented to an alumnus who has demonstrated a sustained commitment to pro bono or public service work throughout a career in the private sector.

David Richman L’69, special counsel in the Philadelphia office of Pepper Hamilton, was the first recipient. “Howard was a great soul. He gave the Law School a moral compass among his other contributions to the institution. I could not have been prouder to receive an award for public service that bore his name.”

A dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker who adopted Philadelphia as his home, Lesnick graduated from New York University in 1953. He went on to earn a Master’s in American History from Columbia and his law degree from that institution. After law school he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice J.M. Harlan.

Lesnick joined the Penn Law faculty in 1960. He was a rigorous scholar, publishing countless penetrating and influential articles on labor law and other subjects and five landmark books on moral education, professional responsibility, and religious consciousness in the law. He also commanded the room as a teacher, engaging students with questions about the meaning of work.

An innovator at heart, Lesnick helped establish the Law School’s original Center on Professionalism, which became a national model for similar programs all over the country. But it was his intense advocacy of public service, and the subsequent creation of a mandatory pro bono program at Penn Law, for which he is most remembered and revered.

It all started with a Lesnick-led experiment in which students spent several hours a week working at the local Community Legal Services. At the time, several decades ago, few law schools put public service at the top of their agendas. But fewer still had a Howard Lesnick to insist that pro bono work is central to the practice of law. Because of his insistence, it is commonplace today for law schools to require students to perform pro bono work before graduation, and Penn Law’s trailblazing program has become one of the glories of the Law School.

In many respects, Lesnick provided the impetus for The Toll Public Interest Center. Over the course of thirty years, TPIC has blossomed into a much admired and emulated program. In 2000, Penn Law became the first law school to be honored with the ABA’s coveted Pro Bono Publico Award for its establishment of a mandatory public service requirement for all students as a condition of graduation. What Lesnick catalyzed grew into a program where today more than 90 percent of the class exceeds the 70-hour requirement and ten times more students pursue public interest work than before the program’s inception.

Several years ago, Lesnick reflected, “It aids law students to think that law school is not simply a prelude to one’s professional life but an integral part of it… Unpaid public service is now taken for granted, not only here, but throughout legal education.”

From the beginning, Lesnick wanted to create the kind of structural change in legal education and in the profession that remains the subject of heated debate today. In 1967, he served as the founding director of the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program, which trained the first generation of American legal services attorneys.

Janet Stotland CW’66, L’69 was among them. She said she owes her career at Community Legal Services and as the former executive director of Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center to Lesnick, who offered her a fellowship. Stotland said he gave her a foothold at a time when there were few opportunities for public interest lawyers. “He launched many public interest careers,” she said. “But the really important part is that Howard was a model of commitment, decency, and humility.”

In 1975, Lesnick, well ahead of his time on cross-disciplinary education, designed a curriculum for the Bryn Mawr College’s School of Social Work, training social service professionals how to understand and work with legal systems.

And in 1982, he left Penn Law for six years to create a new model of legal education at the City University of New York Queens Law School. It was predicated on a stunning and revolutionary concept at the time - the service of human needs through law.

But Lesnick returned to Penn for almost three more decades, along the way imparting wisdom and treating everyone with respect. He mentored scores of students and struck enduring relationships with his colleagues on the faculty.

“In 1970, when the idea of a credit bearing internship was downright radical, Professor Lesnick led the way to enable me to spend a semester in Washington at the Center for Law and Social Policy,” Andrew Schwartzman C’’68, L’71 said upon Lesnick’s retirement in 2016. “As a result, I was one of the very first of what has become hundreds of Penn Law students to embark on a career in public interest law because of Professor Lesnick’s leadership. I am indebted to him.”

Seth Kreimer, the Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, became a close friend of Lesnick’s and mourns his loss.

When Lesnick retired, Kreimer said, “Howard was for almost four decades my valued colleague and mentor. He modeled for me how to remain outraged at the brokenness of the world while remaining alive to its wonder and possibilities. He showed how to attune oneself to the humanity of one’s students, and how to treat colleagues and coworkers with the profound respect that is their due.”

“I lament that the next time I’m drawn to the side of harsh judgment, I’m unlikely to have a conversation with Howard to pull me back. But I have grateful memories of his radiant example.”

Lesnick is survived by his wife of 44 years, Carolyn Schodt; his children and their spouses, Alice Lesnick (daughter of Natalie Lipson Lesnick Schweitzer) and Robert Goldberg, Caleb Schodt and Carolyn Ingram, and Abigail Lesnick and Jonathan Marvinny; his brothers and their spouses, Irving and Sheila Lesnick and Alan and Molly Lesnick; and four grandchildren, Lillian Goldberg, Lowell Nottage, June Goldberg, and Dylan Schodt.

In the weeks and months ahead the Law School community will remember and memorialize Howard in a variety of ways, including with an in-person memorial service when the time is right.


Tributes to Howard Lesnick

Those who wish to offer their remembrances of Professor Howard Lesnick may do so in the comments directly below. Please include your name and Penn affiliation.