Janet Donovan didn’t always want to be a lawyer. She had started her career in social work and later transitioned to advocacy work at a domestic violence agency. It was there that she saw firsthand the crucial efforts of the volunteer attorneys who were fighting for their clients and pushing for policy reform. Their dedication was the inspiration she needed, and she headed to law school at the age of 35.
After law school, as she worked in other practice areas, Janet found herself gravitating towards domestic relations and domestic violence cases. She ultimately decided to leave private practice and join the nonprofit sector, where she could focus on direct services to those least able to access legal assistance.
In 2014, Janet retired after fifteen years as the Managing Attorney of the Legal Advocacy Program at Casa Myrna, a nonprofit devoted to supporting and advocating for survivors of domestic violence. She knew she wanted to remain involved with Boston’s legal community, so she decided to continue her work on the boards of the Women’s Bar Foundation and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and started looking for other projects to fill her time.
Not long after, she was contacted by Sue Finegan, a Member at Mintz Levin and a co-founder of the Clearinghouse’s Access to Justice Fellows Program. Sue was recruiting retired lawyers and judges to join the 2015-2016 class of Fellows, a group of distinguished attorneys who would spend a year volunteering with nonprofits, legal services organizations, and the courts on a variety of pro bono projects related to matters like veterans’ issues, child welfare, court accessibility, and environmental conservation.
Janet was inspired by the ambitious goal of the Fellows Program: to tap into the skills and expertise of experienced senior lawyers to create a network of experts whose wide-ranging pro bono projects would strengthen the nonprofit and legal communities and increase access to justice for all. She agreed to become a Fellow and elected to spend her Fellowship year working with the program itself, evaluating its impact and creating a plan for future growth.
Janet signed on during a time of great change for the program. Three years earlier, under the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, the Fellows Program had kicked off its first year with a pilot class of just seven Fellows. When Janet became a Fellow, she joined a class of 20–the largest yet. The Lawyers Clearinghouse had also recently taken over management of the program, hiring Mia Friedman as the first program director.
“We were thrilled to have Janet join the Clearinghouse in this important role at such a critical time,” says Clearinghouse Executive Director Maribeth Perry. “Her vast experience in both legal services and the nonprofit sector made her a perfect fit for us and for the program.”
Over the next year, Janet and Mia worked to further bolster the program. Janet met with Fellows and partner organizations to gather feedback, recruited new Fellows from firms and service organizations, cultivated relationships between Fellows, and kept past Fellows active and involved once their Fellowships ended.
Janet’s efforts paid off. She acquired a lot of positive feedback from partner organizations indicating the program was enabling them to serve their communities in new and effective ways. And her work to keep people connected to the program and to each other fostered a real sense of community and collaboration among the Fellows, something past participants often consider to be one of the best aspects of their fellowship experience.
As a retired attorney who spent a large part of her career at a nonprofit, Janet says she knows how important the Fellows Program is to both Fellows and partner organizations.
“As Fellows, this program offers us the structure to do the kind of work that we love to do, or to venture into a new area that we’re excited about,” she says. “And from the nonprofit perspective, it’s like a dream come true. That someone with legal expertise and many years of work in the field is now committing to give 10 to 20 hours a week to that nonprofit is something a lot of these directors never dreamed they’d have access to.”
While Janet had a big effect on the growth of the Fellows Program, she also provided crucial guidance as the program transitioned to new leadership.
“It was really valuable to have a colleague, especially someone so experienced, to work with, bounce ideas off of, and be a part of everything that goes on in the program,” Mia says. “Janet started when I started, which was very fortuitous. It was wonderful to have someone to work with as I got adjusted, and as the Clearinghouse got adjusted to managing this program.”
Though her formal Fellowship year ended in June 2016, Janet wasn’t ready to step back. She believed in the program’s importance and wanted to find the most effective way to measure its value to the community.This year, Janet has started working with Susan Gedrick, who took over direction of the program in August. Their goal is to pull together as much data as they can to show the Fellows Program is achieving its mission to increase access to justice for all.
Such a concept can be hard to quantify, but it’s clear that others are taking note of the program. The Louisiana Access to Justice Commission recently announced plans to adopt the Fellows Program model, and other jurisdictions are planning to launch their own versions soon.
Janet sees this as an incentive to get better data to inspire even more nationwide access to justice efforts to engage retired attorneys. And though she prefers not to take any credit for the recent replication of the program, others are more than willing to acknowledge just how much Janet has done.
“Her impact has been enormous. I don’t think the program would be what it is without Janet,” says Susan. “She’s so dedicated and has put in so much time. She seems to have this endless energy to give back.”