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ArchCity Defenders Celebrates 10 Years Of Advocacy, Growth

November 7, 2019 Michael-John Voss and Blake Strode
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Ten years ago, a trio of recent law school graduates formed a nonprofit law firm. They called it ArchCity Defenders. And they had a novel idea: wraparound services, not just legal representation, for the people who needed it most.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Michael-John Voss explained that he and his co-founders, Thomas Harvey and John McAnnar, were inspired by the Jesuit tradition at St. Louis University School of Law. After taking classes in public interest law, they found themselves working on projects representing those too poor to afford lawyers.

“We saw the fact that the existing entities that were supposed to serve the indigent population were overburdened and overworked,” he said. “And there was no communication between the civil and criminal organizations that are supposed to serve this population. We thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’” 

The trio modeled themselves on the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit firm in New York City that also offered social services to its clients. But it was in defending clients from a predatory patchwork of municipal courts that ArchCity found its mission — and, after the death of Michael Brown brought the news media to its doorstep, a national profile.

Today, the attorneys at ArchCity Defenders continue to assist the people they represent in ways that go far beyond a typical law firm. But they do so much more — giving what remains a relatively small firm with 15 attorneys an outsize impact on the St. Louis region. They’ve sued numerous municipalities for predatory policing. They’ve taken on cash bail, excessive court fees and debtors prisons. They’ve represented activists and the wrongly accused. They’ve handled more than 9,300 individual cases. And they’ve forced systemic change.

Executive Director Blake Strode is a Harvard Law School graduate. Attracted to the firm’s national reputation, he returned to his native St. Louis to take the reins. 

ArchCity currently mixes its advocacy for clients with more systemic battles, he said. “We always think about the holistic, direct services as being at the center and the core of what we do,” he said. “And what I really love about ArchCity Defenders, it’s always been infused with this understanding that people have these immediate, material needs. Real people, individual clients, that need help in the moment — and, if we’re not doing something to attack the systems that attack them every day, that dynamic’s never going away.”

For that reason, Voss named the firm’s class-action lawsuit on behalf of people wrongfully jailed in the St. Louis suburb of Jennings as its biggest achievement to date. The $4.7 million settlement in that case, he said, grabbed the attention of municipalities throughout the area.

But beyond that, he joked, the firm’s biggest accomplishment may well be that it’s still here. He and his co-founders certainly never contemplated back in 2009 that a Hollywood actor would be the guest of honor at their 10th anniversary celebration. But on Friday night, Danny Glover will be there. 

It wasn’t the goal, but they’ll take it (and the funds his presence will raise). Their work continues.

Said Voss, “At the very beginning, our first clients that we took on, we just listened to them and believed them, and took what they were telling us seriously — and valued their perspectives and their lived experiences. And that’s basically what we’ve been doing for 10 years. We’ve been trying to do that every single day, and use the tools that we have as lawyers to impact their lives in positive ways. And frankly, we had some great successes.

“But,” he continued, “for every 10 applicants, we just take one. We’re just 15 lawyers, and 14 paralegals and support staff and other amazing people that we work with. We’re not big enough to handle all of the cases that come through our door. That’s one of the things that still is challenging, is knowing that there’s still so many people out there that we haven’t touched.”

Related Event

What: #ACDTurns10

When: 6-10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, 2019

Where: Stifel Theatre (1400 Market St., St. Louis, MO 63103)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.