Forty years ago I was a serious music student without a passion for life as a serious musician. I was a versatile and competent bass player, but I did not burn with desire to make music my mission. I faced graduation with a music degree and no path to personal happiness and fulfilment. I knew law school would accept me with my music credential, so I sat for the LSAT to encouraging results. Without committing to the idea, I applied to schools. I discovered I was an acceptable prospect. I enrolled with Atticus Finch and Arthur Kirkland as my role models.
My first year of law school was a dreadful ordeal, but I survived. In my second year, to avoid the classroom as much as possible, I signed up for the civil legal clinic. I was obligated to spend at least 20 hours each week for both semesters handling cases for disadvantaged folks. I was immersed in poverty law-I did divorces, landlord-tenant disputes, a Supplemental Security Income appeal to Federal District Court. And I loved it. With my humble skill and knowledge I could help people improve their lives. That was a career path that sparked passion.
My job search covered every civil legal services program from as far west as Pittsburg and as far south as Richmond. As luck would have it CLASI had received some new money, generated by the nascent IOLTA program, and was hiring staff attorneys. I was one of those new attorneys.
I started in the poverty law program in the Georgetown office, under the tutelage of Bill Moore. Bill is a brilliant and eccentric lawyer who inspired me with the love he demonstrated for our clients and taught me to channel my own passion productively. After 18 months I moved to Dover to manage that office, and responsibility became my teacher.
As CLASI’s representative in Kent County, I joined with agencies and in activities to help our current and potential clients. My initial interest was in addressing the affordable housing crisis. I joined other advocates and experts in the Delaware Housing Coalition, shedding light on the problem and suggesting solutions.
Governor Carper appointed me to the position of Family Court Commissioner and in that job dove deeply into the issues of domestic violence. After serving a four-year term, I succeeded Judy Schuenemeyer as CLASI’s Executive Director. With Deputy Director Chris White at my side, I helped CLASI enjoy a period of program growth.
As much as I enjoyed the Executive Director job, I missed the day-to-day lawyering of a staff attorney, so when such a job opened in Dover (where I live), I proposed to the Board of Directors that I step down from the big chair and resume direct client service. Fortunately, Chris White was ready to take the reins and did so without missing a beat. For the next 11 years I toiled in the Family Court for victims of domestic violence, in the Justice of the Peace Court for tenants facing wrongful eviction, and in various venues for manufactured home owners holding community owners to the law. I was helping lots of people and I was happy.
I believe many of us have a calling. We are meant to do something to make the world a better place. My colleagues at CLASI shared my calling to work with skill and passion for folks in great need. The reward of answering that call is immeasurable. And I still have fun playing the bass on the weekends.
 The protagonist of the movie And Justice for All (1979), played by Al Pacino.
Judge James McGiffin
Delaware Family Court