John Ettorre

/ Cleveland's Best Lawyers 2017

It’s known simply as the Holy War.

Over the years, there have been 54 installments of this annual gridiron battle for supremacy between two proud and prominent Catholic high schools located just five miles apart on Cleveland’s west side. If it began as a football game, it’s long since grown into a metaphor for the larger competition between St. Ignatius and St. Edward’s High Schools.

More recently that competition has carried over into the halls of the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cleveland where alumni of both schools are waging a spirited but friendly pro bono competition to help the less fortunate with basic legal needs by volunteering their time to staff brief advice clinics.

An Almost Bottomless Need

Cleveland, with more than one in three residents living in poverty and a place that has been called ground zero of the foreclosure crisis, has an almost bottomless need for free legal services. With a staff of 40 full-time attorneys and nearly 500 volunteer lawyers, Legal Aid serves about 20,000 clients every year, providing counsel and sometimes legal representation on everything from divorce and domestic disputes to employment discrimination. But for want of enough lawyers, it still must turn away another 10,000 people who seek its services.

Patrick Haggerty, chair of the group’s pro bono committee (and a St. Ed’s graduate), notes that the new presidential administration has made noises about possibly cutting the budget of the Legal Services Corporation, which funds Legal Aid. "This is all very preliminary. But even at current funding levels, we have to turn away so many people every year. And so much of this work is dependent on volunteers," he says.

The American Bar Association encourages but does not require attorneys to perform pro bono services. With the State of Ohio’s recent decision to make pro bono work eligible for continuing legal education credits, attorneys in the state have yet another reason to perform such service.

Even if public service or continuing education aren’t motive enough, serving in a pro bono capacity offers even more basic benefits for attorneys, says Haggerty. "When I go out and talk to lawyers about Legal Aid, I tell them how fulfilling it is. On a personal level, I learn something every time I take a case or go to a clinic. I learn something about the law that I didn’t know because someone comes in with an immigration question or a custody question or a tax question I didn’t know about. You learn about yourself through the issues we deal with, and you also learn about the society in which we live."

Legal Eagles

For at least a generation, the St. Ed’s Legal Eagles have celebrated alumni in the legal profession. From the start, there has always been a service component, which for many years was mostly confined to raising scholarship funds for disadvantaged students. Shortly after the start of the new millennium, it took the form of volunteering for Legal Aid, and St. Ed’s alumni took special satisfaction in doing so at a Catholic social services center right across the street from archrival St. Ignatius.

St. Ignatius recognized excellence among its graduates in the law with its annual Bellarmine Award, but it’s not focused primarily on pro bono service. So when St. Ignatius alumnus Bryan Evans graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 2014, he decided to do something about it.

"I had heard about St. Ed’s doing the Legal Eagles and realized that, for as many attorneys as Ignatius has in town, we could easily match that productivity. So I started talking to Legal Aid about how we could get involved." He was active in the St. Ignatius alumni council, and began talking to both sides. "I just started randomly contacting alumni to see if they’d be willing to staff one of these legal clinics." Now Ignatius grads staff two clinics a year, and Evans expects that participation will continue to grow.

He readily admits it was all modeled on his alma mater’s rival. "It’s no secret that I was directly modeling it on the Legal Eagles," he says. "I really admired the fact that they organize that way. It has a pro bono aspect, but also a networking aspect. We have at least as many attorneys in Cleveland, if not more."

The Real Holy War

Ignatius alumnus Kevin Hinkel, a prominent real estate lawyer, learned all about the Holy War early in life: he has two brothers who went to St. Ed’s. Today, he sees the two schools having more in common than not.

"The real holy war that St. Ed’s and Ignatius alumni wage daily is trying to get into heaven. The Jesuits and the Holy Cross brothers both teach that the face of God is found in the face of marginalized people. Service is stressed at both schools."

For people at the margins of society, he says, "access to the legal system has almost become a basic human need. When I’ve volunteered at a Legal Aid clinic, I [was] shocked at the basic needs of people who don’t have lawyers. People show up all morning, and you listen to their stories." One common story he heard: a man thought he had bought a house by giving a stranger $6,000. "And the guy says, ‘OK, you own the house.’ He didn’t get a deed, and he didn’t go to a bank. And of course, he doesn’t really own that house."

County Common Pleas Judge John Russo, a St. Ed’s graduate and former head of the Legal Eagles, enjoys the competition and occasional good-natured trash talking between the archrivals. He thinks it spurs alumni of both schools to keep ratcheting up their game.

"Where else can you go in the state of Ohio where you have two great Catholic schools that have graduated such great men who have dedicated their time, money, and talents to the city? With St. Ignatius’ ‘Men for Others’ motto and St. Ed’s tradition of servant leadership, I think we can all stand tall."