Chicago’s legal aid community received some great news when Tom Morsch and his family recently committed to continue their generous endowment of the prestigious Thomas H. Morsch Public Service Award for an additional five years.
Tom deservedly has received a lot of recognition over the years for his tireless pro bono efforts and exemplary leadership in the legal community on access to justice issues. As a longtime partner at Sidley Austin and pro bono leader within the firm, Tom was one of the earliest advocates for getting private law firms to commit to pro bono service. Yet Tom always felt that the private bar received a disproportionate amount of recognition for their pro bono contributions compared to the lawyers who had dedicated their careers to public interest law at great financial sacrifice.
During his time as President of the CBF in the mid-1990’s, Tom got to know some of the many lawyers doing great work at Chicago’s pro bono and legal aid organizations every day outside of the spotlight. At the close of his two-year term, Tom wanted to find a way to recognize extraordinary public interest lawyers, so, in partnership with the CBF, he created the Thomas H. Morsch Public Service Award. The award includes a substantial cash prize to recipients, thanks to the generous endowment from the Morsch family.
“It always annoyed me that the people who did pro bono work at large corporate law firms were doing it on a lark; they were getting a lot of publicity and also were making a lot of money as lawyers,” Tom quipped. “In the meantime, there were people that dedicated their whole lives to do this stuff, usually working at nonprofits to help the poor or the discriminated.”
Since 1998, 18 outstanding lawyers from across the public interest legal spectrum have been lauded with the Morsch Award. They are champions for the poor, homeless, or disabled, or have worked tirelessly to ensure basic rights such as access to healthcare or children’s safety. Tom describes the “perfect Morsch candidate” as a top notch lawyer from a pro bono or legal aid organization who has made a demonstrable difference to Chicago’s legal community. He or she exhibits traits of perseverance and modesty, and is relatively “unsung” for their exemplary efforts.
Receiving the award was a like a stamp of validation for the first recipient, Rene Heybach at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“During that period, you didn’t see your colleagues in public interest getting recognized in a meaningful way,” Rene recalls. “Once the bar had a formal recognition of my work, it opened the door to consideration for other recognitions and benefits.”
Several other recipients have since moved into leadership or director positions at their respective legal aid organizations.
2001 recipient Meg Benson (now Executive Director at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services), echoes Rene’s sentiment: “The award served as an affirmation that I was doing a good job, which allowed me to move forward and make, at times, hard decisions. This was, and remains, a highpoint in my career.”
Believing that the recipients may be tempted to use the cash prize to do something altruistic with the money awarded or give it back to their organization, Tom made it very clear that he wants them to spend it on something frivolous, like the trip they’ve always dreamt of taking but put off for financial reasons.
“They’ve spent their whole career being charitable; it’s time they were rewarded personally for what they’ve done,” said Tom’s son Jim, who chairs the selection committee for the award.
Some have put the money towards tangible necessities, like a second car. Heybach, for example, set aside half of the money for herself and invested the other half to help her young nephews through college. Others have sent the Morsch family postcards from around the world—Benson’s family spent a week in London and Paris and another family traversed the Land Down Under. Tom Yates, Executive Director at AIDS Legal Council and the 2013 award recipient, took the opportunity to visit his daughter, who was teaching English in Vietnam at the time. He and his wife were able to explore several parts of the country, including Saigon, the Mekong Delta and Hanoi.
On July 14, we will add another name to the list of deserving honorees when we present the 2015 Morsch Award at the Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon. On the sense of commonality that she feels with Morsch recipients, Rene remarks:
“There’s a great bond I feel with folks receiving that award, and that feeling of support, collegiality, and collaboration gets renewed every time the award gets awarded. None of us can work alone, and none of us wins something alone.”