Doing What Ought to be Done

Sharon Dietrich lives by this credo. Just ask her clients at Community Legal Services

Published in 2007 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2007

Row after row after row, the chairs in the waiting room at Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia are filled. There is an elderly woman holding a cane. Two young immigrants speak rapid-fire Spanish. A bearded gentleman wears a flannel shirt and smells of body odor. All need legal help. None have money.

All eyes turn as Dietrich, tall and dressed in a black jumper over a maroon turtleneck with wavy curls of blonde hair reaching her shoulders, calls the name of her next appointment.

“We deal in high volume, as you can see,” Dietrich tells me later as we walk into her office, which is labeled by a slip of paper with the words “Sharon Dietrich Room 516” taped to the door. An old Mr. Coffee sits on top of a metal filing cabinet and several plaques grace the patched white walls. Dietrich is the managing attorney for employment and public benefits at CLS, heads a staff of 30 people, and has 100 active cases. Yet she still seems chagrined that she’s not doing more. 

Dietrich started at CLS in 1987, just two years removed from law school at the University of Pennsylvania. In 20 years, she has helped people facing grim situations. Like the immigrant stiffed on several weeks’ wages by a restaurant owner. “It’s so easy to get outraged by our cases,” she says. “You’d be amazed at how often we run up and down the hall saying, ‘Can you believe this one?’”

One of the people she commiserates with is Catherine Carr, executive director of CLS. Carr knows what Dietrich brings to the organization. In nominating Dietrich for the prestigious Kutak-Dodds Prize for civil legal aid, which is handed out every year by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), Carr wrote:

Sharon has taken a legal practice area of incredible importance to America’s poorest residents—employment—and strategically built both a local and national legal services effort to advance employment-related rights and opportunities for legal services clients.

Carr must have been convincing because the NLADA awarded Dietrich the prize last June. In accepting, Dietrich gave kudos to the people she meets in the CLS waiting room. “My true inspiration comes from my clients,” she told attendees at the awards dinner. “They are the ones that struggle each day with dignity and ingenuity, despite the numerous employment problems they face.”

 

Raised in rural Hamburg, Dietrich was the oldest of three children born to Robert and Marie Dietrich, and only the second person in her family to attend college. Her father worked in the steel industry; at a young age Dietrich understood the power of collective bargaining. “Because my father worked in a unionized workplace, I knew he earned wages and benefits beyond what a person without an extensive education would have,” she says.

After graduating with an English degree from Albright College in 1982, Dietrich enrolled at Penn Law School, where she volunteered with the Women’s Law Group and the National Lawyer’s Guild, and served as the student representative to the faculty hiring committee, which advocated for the hiring of quality female and minority candidates. 

After a two-year stint serving as law clerk to U.S. District Judge Ann Aldrich in Cleveland, Dietrich returned to Philadelphia. A number of her law school friends had gone to work for CLS, which was known as an incubator for legal talent. Unlike her friends, she never left. “I would not say that I immediately knew this was the only place I would work for my entire career,” she says.

In those early days, Dietrich worked for Harold Goodman, who at the time led one of the country’s few employment practices for low-income people. “You could tell she had the fire in the belly and the real warrior’s mentality that you need to be a good advocate,” says Goodman, who now leads the employment law practice at Raynes McCarty in Philadelphia. “Within the first month, the clients realized she was a very special lawyer.”

Dietrich took over CLS’s employment unit in 1997. Once installed, she tried to find new solutions for old problems. “She isn’t the sort who engages in garden-variety litigation,” Goodman says.

In 1997, Pennsylvania passed a law prohibiting people with criminal records from working in nursing homes or as health-care workers. Dietrich received a rising number of complaints about this and was intrigued. “I remember thinking, ‘Gee, this is interesting. It doesn’t fit any of the usual remedies we have in employment law—I wonder whether there is anything we can do about it,’” she says. 

Dietrich solicited help from the private bar, most notably from David Wolfsohn of Woodcock Washburn. They found the perfect lead plaintiff in Earl R. Nixon, a 50-year-old legally blind man who had worked in the health care field in Pittsburgh for more than a decade before the law went into effect and made him unemployable in that field. Turns out that 30 years earlier, Nixon, at the age of 19, had been convicted of a marijuana possession charge. 

“This was legislation that initially had some legitimacy but overplayed those concerns and blocked people who had paid their debt to society from obtaining employment,” says Seth Kreimer, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who taught Dietrich’s advanced civil procedure class in law school and later helped with the Nixon case. “Sharon’s talent is in being able to see enough of the big picture to bring enough leverage to bear.”

In 2001, a state court ruled the law unconstitutional, finding it too sweeping in scope. The state attorney general appealed, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it was irrational—a grandfather provision, for example, would allow one person to keep working and another with an identical criminal record to be barred. 

CLS won the battle, but “we do not proclaim we won the war,” Dietrich says. The state legislature still has not repealed the law because it’s a delicate political situation. No legislator wants to run on a platform of having allowed murderers, rapists and other offenders back in the workplace. Dietrich favors a resolution that allows employers to take into consideration how long ago a crime occurred, the seriousness of the crime and how related it is to the job under consideration.

Dietrich has had “a fundamental impact nationwide,” says Maurice Emsellem, policy director for the nonprofit National Employment Law Project, based in New York. Emsellem says that Dietrich and her staff have “always been on the cutting edge of new employment issues” and have shared information with legal service agencies around the country. “Not only is she a really inspiring advocate, she also cares about the community where she lives, the workers there, and the community of advocates,” he says.

 

Over the years, Dietrich has received lucrative job offers from many firms “that would pay her many times the salary we can pay her here,” says Carr. “She does this work because she really cares about access to justice for vulnerable people and making our justice system live up to its promise.”

When asked about her two decades at CLS, Dietrich smiles and her blue eyes light up from behind her wire-rimmed glasses. “I have the freedom to do what ought to be done,” she says, leaning across her desk, where folders are piled high, “as opposed to what someone will pay me to do.” 

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