Lowenstein Sandler Pro Bono Head Leaves Legacy Of Service

By Jake Maher | May 16, 2024, 4:38 PM EDT ·

portrait of a smiling white woman with gray hair in a bob, wearing a gray suit
Catherine Weiss
As she winds down her tenure leading Lowenstein Sandler LLP's Center for Public Interest this month, Catherine Weiss is leaving behind a legacy as a fierce public advocate for immigrants and reproductive rights at a time when public interest law as a whole faces new challenges.

From setting the agenda at the firm's pro bono arm for the last 12 years, to serving in the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate, to leading the reproductive rights unit at the American Civil Liberties Union, there are several areas of public advocacy that Weiss has played a role in advancing.

Her tireless efforts have had a tremendous impact in the Garden State and beyond, according to those who have worked with Weiss over the years.

"We are just so fortunate that she has chosen to use those extraordinary gifts that she has for the work that she's done," said Louise Melling, a longtime friend and former ACLU colleague. "She's made such a difference in so many people's lives."

Public interest was the only legal career path she ever considered, Weiss told Law360 Pulse recently, attributing the decision to her upbringing and outlook on the world but also her temperament as a person.

"I work hard, I work a lot, and given that, and given how many hours I devote to it, it's very important to me that I care a lot about what I'm working on," Weiss said.

Weiss will remain of counsel at the firm and continue to handle some pro bono cases, but stepping back from the center at the end of May will open up free time for Weiss that she plans to use for traveling, continuing her hobby of ceramics and making mosaic art and maybe doing some writing — "something besides briefs," she joked.

In the background, however, the move comes at a challenging time nationally for some of the causes Weiss has worked on, particularly reproductive rights. It was "extremely painful," she said, to see the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs decision ending the constitutional right to an abortion.

"The good news," Weiss said, "is that there are lots of people in this country who want to protect rights and achieve justice, and there are lots of lawyers who want to help people who need help in accessing justice."

"All of that means that there is pushback against the prevailing winds," she said.

Weiss dove into public interest law after Yale University and Yale Law School by clerking for U.S. Circuit Judge Alvin Rubin of the Fifth Circuit and helping handle a large civil rights docket, before her interest in women's rights led her to the national American Civil Liberties Union. At that time the Supreme Court was hearing cases relating to abortion rights nearly every term, Weiss recalled.

"It was an extremely active Supreme Court practice at the time, and so that was a very exciting way to start a legal career," Weiss said.

Weiss rose to lead the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project from 1997 to 2002. Melling, now a deputy legal director for the ACLU who led the project immediately after Weiss did, praised her for building the project's capacity for "integrated advocacy" by bringing together litigators, communications specialists, state-level advocates and others and envisioning a strategy for the reproductive rights unit beyond litigating case by case.

Melling, who has been a friend of Weiss' since meeting at the beginning of law school, also spoke to both her humor and warmth as a person and her instinct for leadership.

She recalled one instance while Weiss was head of the Reproductive Freedom Project when the ACLU was arguing that the Idaho Constitution required Medicaid to cover abortions. The ACLU was representing several individual clients in the case, one of whom had her petition for emergency relief denied.

"Catherine's response to that was, 'We'll take care of her. We will raise the money for her tonight. We will all stay here until we get the money for her to take care of her,'" Melling said.

Melling recalled that thanks to Weiss' leadership, the office took on the atmosphere of a rally, with attorneys cheering one another on as they raised money that night to take care of the client, who never forgot what Weiss and the ACLU did for her.

After a short stint at the Brennan Center for Justice, Weiss was tapped in 2006 to lead the newly created Division of Public Interest Advocacy at the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate. There, she took on a range of projects, including an effort to protect a working class community of "tiny" beach home owners in Long Branch from eminent domain overreach by the city, she said.

When that department was dissolved during Gov. Chris Christie's administration in 2010, Weiss' path led her to Lowenstein Sandler.

"There was some culture shock on my part. I'd never worked in the private sector," Weiss said. "But it was evident very quickly that the leadership at Lowenstein Sandler, and in particular our managing partner Gary Wingens, and others in powerful positions at the firm were incredibly supportive of the pro bono practice … and that makes an enormous difference."

One of the center's major victories has been its representation of a class of over 700 young immigrants who successfully challenged the government's policy of disqualifying them from special immigrant juvenile status, a form of immigration legal relief, during the Trump administration. Weiss herself was lead counsel on that case, which reached a settlement in 2022.

Laura Cohen, a professor and the director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School, said Weiss is "always the smartest person in the room" and recalled the role Weiss played in fighting for youth justice in New Jersey.

When Cohen's work at the clinic revealed that young people in New Jersey's youth prisons were being subject to solitary confinement as a form of punishment, she reached out to Weiss, who brought together a coalition of New Jersey public advocates to oppose that practice. The group ultimately got a measure to ban punitive solitary confinement in youth prisons included in a 2015 criminal justice reform bill.

"The legal landscape is much different and infinitely better for New Jersey's youth because of Catherine's work in this area," Cohen said.

Even after retirement, "I am sure we will be calling on her expertise, whether she wants to [give it] or not," Cohen added.

While at Lowenstein Sandler, Weiss also co-founded the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children in 2015, a forum for providers of legal services for unaccompanied immigrant children from across the state, to share resources and pool expertise.

"By founding the consortium it laid the foundation to later increased services, representation, and a whole slew of other available resources for young people that just didn't exist before," said Priscilla Monico Marin, the NJCIC's executive director. "Her impact is really astounding."

Alexander Shalom of the New Jersey ACLU, who is taking Weiss' spot as chair of the center in June, praised the Center for Public Interest in general as a "convenor," bringing public interest attorneys from across the state together to collectively solve problems. He also noted that the center effectively bridges a divide between attorneys mounting major litigation and attorneys offering ground-level legal services.

As for Weiss' reputation as an individual attorney, Shalom called it "stellar."

"It's not just among public interest lawyers, who absolutely hold her in incredibly high regard, but also against the adversaries that she's throttled over the years," Shalom said.

With Roe v. Wade overturned, the world of public interest law and the country at large are entering uncharted territory, and Weiss said she is hearing questions she never expected to hear before.

She was particularly dismayed, for example, by recent oral argument before the Supreme Court over Idaho's abortion ban, in which she described counsel and some justices discussing the possibility of doctors waiting for a woman to approach a life-threatening medical condition before performing an abortion to avoid running afoul of the law that permits abortions only in emergencies.

"That is shocking, even in this new world that we find ourselves living in," Weiss said.

But Weiss struck a hopeful note when it comes to the future of public advocacy and the opportunities for change.

"There's going to have to be reliance on public social movements to move the country," Weiss said. "Courts are conservative creatures, but they swim in the waters we all swim in. They live in the world with the rest of us."

Now, from the vantage point of having spent 40 years practicing in public interest work, Weiss still sees reasons for optimism.

"It is unclear where we'll go, but we are not yet cowed into the position where no one is resisting," Weiss said. "That could still happen, but it hasn't happened yet."

--Editing by Haylee Pearl.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!