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Pro bono is new chancellor's focus

Deborah Gross is all about pro bono.

Oh, sure, she's built a successful national practice in plaintiffs' securities-fraud litigation, antitrust, and consumer class actions. But to Gross' way of thinking, nothing reflects the ideals of the legal profession, or the essential service lawyers provide, more than the work they do for poor and disadvantaged clients.

"My heart and soul are really for the legal services community and the people they help," Gross says.

Gross was scheduled to give her inaugural address today as the incoming chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association at its annual meeting at the Hyatt at the Bellevue, and she says she plans during her one-year term, which begins Jan. 1, to redouble efforts to provide pro bono legal services to underserved populations.

"The timing couldn't be more perfect," she says.

She says that is because of Republicans' resurgent strength on the national level – they will now control not only the White House but both houses of Congress. That increases the odds that federal funding for public interest legal programs will be cut back, she said.

As chancellor-elect, Gross voices no political preference, but does assert there is enormous need to help poor people wend their way through the courts – whether it involves a housing issue, a benefits question, or assistance with the criminal justice system.

Gross, 55, says she plans to match internal divisions of the bar association with one of the more than 30 public interest law organizations in the city, all in an effort to spur an increase in pro bono representation by bar association members. A model for this was the expungement clinics offered by the young lawyers division on Nov. 12 for people with criminal records seeking to have them removed from the public record.

Nearly 2,000 people signed up for six clinics at different locations in the city run by the bar association and Community Legal Services.

"What we are trying to do is gather the troops and support them," says Gross, the mother of three adult children who lives in Gladwyne with her husband, Stuart Kurtz, a lawyer with a practice in Wayne.

Gross did her undergraduate work at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and earned her law degree at Boston University Law School.

Her involvement in the bar association grew out of her service with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, a fund-raising arm of the local bar that raises money for public interest legal groups in the city. Gross served as president of the foundation in 2013 and 2014, and was co-chair of two of its fund-raising benefits.

At the bar association, she plans to continue the work of her predecessor,  Gaetan Alfano, who worked to raise the association's profile by speaking out on hotly debated legal issues, writing op-eds, organizing candidates forums, building membership, and cutting costs.

"We need to make sure that we are relevant to all of our attorneys," Gross said.