The Daily Record (Baltimore, MD)
January 27, 2006
Low-bono's go-to first-rate MD lawyer Nevett Steele Jr.
By Ann W. Parks
In Harper Lee's classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," the courageous Atticus Finch shows his children and his small-town community how to stand up for one's beliefs, through his representation of a poor but innocent man. Nevett Steele Jr., who takes over Feb. 1 as the new director of litigation and general counsel of Civil Justice Inc. an organization designed to help solo and small-firm attorneys provide low-cost legal help to traditionally underserved members of the public likes Atticus Finch.
Whether he's discussing the accomplishments of a colleague or describing his vision of Civil Justice, Steele is one of those lawyers who points to Lee's fictional character as the model of the great legal hero.
"I know this is an idealized sort of thing, but you seek to have [lawyers] make a living and also to provide some tremendous service to individuals and the community and help set an example," Steele says. "Our motto is helping lawyers to do well while doing good."
Filling the gaps
While that motto borders on the cliché, it's one Steele takes seriously.
"Nevett is a first-rate lawyer, and in his career he's taken on causes of people who can't otherwise find representation," University of Maryland law professor Michael Millemann said this week. "He does it with grace and charm, although he can be tough when he has to be tough.
"Steele's 36-year career as a lawyer has taken him to Annapolis, as a law clerk for former Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Special Appeals; to the federal courts, as an assistant U.S. attorney; to the big-firm atmosphere of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP; to his own solo firm of Nevett Steele Jr. P.A.; and most recently, as an assistant county attorney in Frederick and Baltimore counties.
Lingering in the background, however, was a hankering for public-interest work.
"Nevett represented prisoners in a variety of prisoner-rights cases in the 1970s; he's represented death-row inmates; he has always found time within his busy practice, when he was at Whiteford, or when he was in his own practice, to provide pro bono representation to others," Millemann said.
While at Whiteford in the 1980s, he served as co-counsel in a still-ongoing case to reform the Baltimore City foster care program L.J. v. Massinga. The case, which was initiated by Whiteford, the Legal Aid Bureau Inc. and the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, has led to greater protections for children placed in foster care and has increased the resources of the foster-care system.
"He was a very important player in the litigation," said Venable partner Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who is currently co-counsel on the Massinga case along with Whiteford's Gary S. Posner and the Public Justice Center's Rhonda B. Lipkin.
Steele, Mirviss said, achieved very significant settlements in the case on the issue of damages.
"It was one of my proudest achievements, being involved with a wonderful thing," Steele said.
Steele also found time, along with Millemann and others, to fill the gaps in Maryland's pro bono landscape. Steele and Millemann got wind of a grant the American Bar Association would be making a seed of an idea that, in 1981, would sprout into the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service.
"We looked at that and said we could expand this to provide legal services to the poor in general," Steele explained. "A group of us got together and got it funded so that we would be able to have a referral service that is strictly pro bono," for clients who meet the same financial standards as the people who go to the Legal Aid Bureau.
"Although eight or 10 others were involved in the project, the fact that Steele was willing to be that organization's first president was significant, said Winifred Borden, now the executive director of the 25-year-old MVLS.
"The organization had minimal staff [then], and the board was very active in recruiting volunteers and setting the parameters of MVLS," Borden said. "They had a good vision and they had a good design."
Not satisfied with resting on his laurels, Steele also helped found the Public Justice Center (again, with Millemann) in 1985 serving as a director and past president in the late 1980s."[We had] always dreamed of a public interest law firm that would have the freedom to go into areas it chose to and where it saw community need," Steele said. "We turned it over to young people really quickly, a sizable strong group that's done some wonderful things class-action wage suits, [help] for children who are homeless, a wide range of things.
"And in 1998, Steele helped bring yet another idea to fruition Civil Justice, which this week welcomes him as director of litigation services.
Operated in conjunction with his alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Law, this nonprofit seeks to provide legal help to low- and moderate-income people who might not otherwise be able to afford high quality representation a "low-bono" organization of sorts.
Civil Justice pulls together a network of solo and small-firm attorneys, who might be younger lawyers needing the referrals or those of any age who simply want the lower-cost bundled research services a group association can provide. Fees are negotiated between the network attorney and the client.
"The lower/middle income people don't get the representation that maybe the very poor and the very wealthy get," Steele noted. "We hope to place cases with our members so that they get paid a decent fee, [although] it might not be the same fee that a large law firm is charging."
Civil Justice also does some direct litigation such as "class-action work with predatory real estate matters," he said, or mobile-home plaintiffs fighting eviction in Howard County.
Which is where Steele comes in. Since the death of Civil Justice's founding executive director, Denis J. Murphy, last May, the organization decided to expand his post into two.
Phillip R. Robinson will move from deputy executive director to executive director, and will be responsible primarily for the management of the program. Steele will be, in Robinson's words, "the "litigation guy."
"Each of us will support each other in our role because it all interchanges," Robinson said.
Steele will also serve as a resource for network members and will be doing some teaching at the University of Maryland likely consumer law.
"We really want to get the law students interested in what we are doing," he said, adding that he is also interested in getting other law schools involved in Civil Justice.
"It gives an alternative to law students, that there's an alternative to going to work for a large law firm, the attorney general's office, the state's attorney's office, an insurance company, and institutional type of practice," he says. "You see their eyes light up."
At 65, with a new title, Steele shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon." I am very concerned with the gap between the poor and the rich in this country right now," he said. "We can do something about it [with Civil Justice, representing] people being taken advantage of who have finally struggled to get enough together to buy a house and then find out that the mortgage is fraudulent or they don't have the deed to the property.
"But he would also like to see more voter registration among lower-income people.
"I've always had an interest in correctional reform and rehabilitation of prisoners, and there's a fairly strong movement in the state right now on restoring voting rights to ex-offenders," he said. "I feel personally, politically and economically that one thing the country really needs is for the poor to have the ability to express themselves strongly as far as elections are concerned.
"Stephen H. Sachs, who appointed Steele as assistant U.S. attorney nearly four decades ago, was pleased to hear of his former colleague's new role.
"That's been Nevett's calling card," he said, adding that Steele has, over his long career, devoted a tremendous amount of time and energy to public interest work. "He certainly has been in the forefront in a commitment to making the rule of law a reality for everyone, not some privilege belonging to those who can afford it."
Atticus would be proud.
Copyright 2006, The Daily Record. Reprinted with permission.