Sixteen-thousand feet down, 3,000 to go. Dan Grunfeld and his 13-year-old son David had been climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for days, and there was no turning back. So they climbed, braving freezing temperatures, ice fields and oxygen-starved air. Nine hours later they reached the top, where Grunfeld, the president and CEO of Public Counsel, America’s largest pro bono firm, planted a Public Counsel flag. “I thought it was really appropriate to take Public Counsel, which is metaphorically all about climbing mountains and bettering your lot and helping people reach places they haven’t gone before. It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he says.
Kilimanjaro first caught Grunfeld’s eye when he was growing up in Africa. His father was part of the Israeli diplomatic efforts in Africa, and his mother was helping to draft the Ethiopian code and constitution. He remembers seeing Mount Kilimanjaro from afar and asking his parents, “Why don’t we just go up there?” His parents weren’t the climbing type, but he told himself he’d do it someday.
When Grunfeld was 11, his family moved to Philadelphia. He graduated from Cornell Law School and in 1998 joined Public Counsel. Grunfeld is a fourth-generation lawyer whose mother has joked that it’s a “genetic mutation” in the family. “My wife is also a lawyer,” he says. “And we have a son who already argues with us like he’s going to be a lawyer.”
Grunfeld was thinking about his son when he was reminded of his old desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. David had just celebrated his bar mitzvah, and Grunfeld thought the climb would be a perfect way to celebrate. David had never done any climbing before but turned out to be one of the youngest people ever to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and Grunfeld couldn’t be prouder. “When I’m old and gray and can’t move around much,” he says, “I’m positive I will think back on the climb with my son to the summit of Africa.”
Another source of fulfillment for Grunfeld is his position with Public Counsel. “I think there’s something emotionally gratifying about helping deserving people,” he says. “You come into an organization like Public Counsel as a volunteer thinking that you’re going to help your client — and you do — but you find out that the person you help the most is yourself.”
Meanwhile, Public Counsel flags might show up on a few more mountain peaks. “I think there’s always mountains I’ll be climbing, professionally with Public Counsel and otherwise,” he says. “I haven’t focused on it yet, but I can’t imagine that this will be the last one.”