California's legal services community has tried for years to nominate Jack Londen for the State Bar's top honor.
Londen always resisted recognition, declining in favor of "someone else deserving it more."
This month, however, he will receive the Loren Miller Legal Services Award, which annually honors an attorney who has made a profound difference as a champion of the disadvantaged.
"Jack does individual pro bono cases, massive impact cases, encourages other attorneys to do pro bono work, serves on projects, lobbies in Washington," says Mary Viviano, the bar's head of legal services. "He does everything. That's what's so unusual."
"Jack's heart and soul are rooted in making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people in society," adds Tanya Neiman, director of the Volunteer Legal Services Program in San Francisco, which nominated Londen for the award.
A partner since 1984 with Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, where he practices general litigation, Londen's pro bono resume is lengthy and impressive.
It lists 16 legal services committees he belongs to or chairs.
It mentions Londen's handling of more than 50 pro bono direct service cases since 1980, a number of consumer cases and supervision of 200-plus cases handled by associates at his firm. It includes co-founding in 1995 and currently chairing Californians for Legal Aid, a project to organize grassroots support for continued federal aid to legal services programs.
"More than any individual in California, if legal services survive, Jack Londen's efforts will have been critical and perhaps even decisive," says Nancy Strohl, executive director of the Public Interest Clearinghouse.
Born in Boulder, Colo., in 1953, Londen graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and received his law degree at Yale. He clerked for two years for U.S. District Judge William Schwarzer in San Francisco before joining Morrison & Foerster.
Of his many successes, including an appellate ruling that upheld the State Bar's client trust fund program and a federal court order requiring improved services for Latinos in the San Jose School District, Londen says perhaps his most satisfying case was one which received no public notice.
He and his colleagues took a case, through a legal clinic, of a man wrongly accused. "It didn't look good, he faced losing his job and the accuser was a real victim," Londen recalled. Despite a good deal of circumstantial evidence, Londen and his team rejected deals offered by the prosecution and prepared to prove their case.
When they showed up for trial, the prosecution dismissed.
"As a piece of work, we did a great job," he said. "We figured everything out, took a one-sided case and could explain everything. It was like a mystery show on TV. It was very satisfying."
Londen is self-effacing about his volunteer work, saying he thinks most people would do what he does "if they thought they could get away with it. My main qualification is not looking a gift horse in the mouth."
The work has been fascinating because it has covered such a wide variety of issues: schools, mental hospitals, housing, prisons, health care, reproductive rights. The cases Londen handles offer both the chance to help real people and to participate in society's significant issues, he explains.
"The thing I find best about being the kind of lawyer I am is you get to get deeply into many things that are very different from each other, whether figuring out a business and securities class action or a fascinating technology in a patent case, or how school districts are run and why ethnicity still seems to matter in how kids do or how they're treated," Londen says.
He credits his firm for both its policy of involvement in pro bono work and for allowing him to donate so much time without complaint.
"I completely believe a great many lawyers would do just what I've done if they were in a situation where they thought it would be okay," he says. "It hasn't been all sacrifice."