[Posted February 11, 2011] The news spread rapidly through Richmond on Wednesday; former Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell had died overnight. The news was sad but hardly unforeseeable to those who had seen him in recent months, a once robust figure reduced to comparative frailty by the ravages of the disease that would eventually claim him this week.

Others have written about Justice Hassell’s legacy as a pioneering legal figure. He made news, and waves, with his mental-health proposals a few years ago. He was the Supreme Court’s second minority jurist, plucked straight from the private practice of law to sit on Virginia’s highest bench. On these matters, I will leave the words of others to inform you.

I choose instead to focus on two aspects of the former chief’s life and his character. Taking them chronologically, the first is his involuntary position as one of the first African-American students to integrate formerly all-white Norview High School, here in Tidewater, back in September 1970. (Brown v. Board of Education famously took its time in reaching the classrooms of Virginia.) I remember this time well, because on what was likely the very same day, I was part of the first crop of white students to walk into the halls of formerly all-black Crestwood Junior High School in Chesapeake, just ten miles due south of Norview.

Justice Hassell spoke little of that occasion, but I suspect that his experience was a bit different from mine. While my junior high school was fully integrated immediately, Norview, as I understand it, wasn’t; I have read that the first group of minority students there was very small, and constituted a tiny segment of the school’s population. That, I perceive, is a very different dynamic.

My daughter’s generation, from what I’ve seen, regards racial prejudice as a sort of anachronistic curiosity; from what I’ve seen of her social choices, and those of her friends, race is essentially irrelevant to them. It wasn’t, forty years ago. What I infer that Leroy Hassell learned from that time was, I suspect, the same two lessons that I learned: First, there were certain people who decided what they thought about you by looking only at the color of your skin. And second, the rest of us were going to prevail, as long as we persevered.

Justice Hassell persevered. Four years after leaving Norview, he entered Harvard Law School, and from there he embarked on a career that would raise him rapidly to the pinnacle of his profession – a Supreme Court justice in his mid-30s. It was less important to him that he was a black justice than that he was a good justice.

The second aspect of this man I’ll mention here is his commitment to pro bono service. For the last eight years, every time I had a merits argument before the Supreme Court, I watched at the beginning of the day’s docket as newly-licensed lawyers were sworn in and admitted to the bar of the court. On each of those occasions, the Chief Justice gave a short welcoming speech to the new lawyers, fully half of which was an exhortation to provide pro bono services to indigent clients. It never varied; he always impressed upon each lawyer the need to provide this public service.

I have no idea how to measure how effective these urgings were, but I know that he was fully committed to improving the availability of pro bono services. In this light, I invite each of my readers who are attorneys to reflect on how much pro bono work you have provided over the last year, or the last ten. Keep in mind what pro bono work is not: It does not include work for one of your good corporate clients for which you simply decline to submit a bill, in the interest of generating goodwill and future business. It does not include representing your best corporate client’s CEO’s teenage son who got a speeding ticket, again for no fee. That kind of work is called marketing, and it doesn’t count against the 2% of your time per year that the Rules of Professional Conduct call for you to perform pro bono publico, “for the public good.”

Here’s how the RPCs define pro bono services: poverty law, civil rights law, public interest law, and volunteer activities designed to increase availability of pro bono legal services. That is the yardstick by which each of us must measure our contribution to the betterment of society, not merely to the expansion of our own wealth. RPC 6.1(c) provides one alternate method of satisfying your duties, in case (for example) you’re a corporate or tax lawyer and you don’t feel capable of handling a civil-rights lawsuit: You can provide “direct financial support of programs that provide direct delivery of legal services to meet the needs” of the above areas. If you’re in that situation, I encourage you to click on this link and make a donation. Jay Speer, Executive Director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, will be very happy to have your help.

For the rest of us, please feel free to use the conventional method, and take on a case or three for clients who could never afford your services at the rack rate. If you have a law license, you’re expected to do this. And given how important was to the late Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr., you will be honoring the legacy of a champion of this cause, now at rest.

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Today I had the honor of visiting the rotunda of the State Capitol, where Justice Hassell’s remains lay in state, to pay my final respects. Since the General Assembly is in session, I suspect that he had a great deal of visitors who were much more exalted than I am. I hope you had an opportunity to see this highly moving scene – the coffin, draped with the flag of Virginia, attended solemnly by two Capitol Police officers at all times, lying immediately at the feet of the Houdon statute of George Washington. Justice Hassell’s memorial services will be held tomorrow morning in Richmond, and interment will be private.