Dietrich, Sharon 2016

Last modified: 2021-01-16 07:26
Storyteller: Dietrich, Sharon M.
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: 2016-04-26
Length: 0:31:10

Topics: EEOC, Employment law, Expungement of criminal records, Poverty law, Re-entry, and Unemployment compensation
Geo, US: PA
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NEJL I.D.: NEJL-009.099
Georgetown status: Video upon request
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Link to NEJL page: http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/330
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Transcript link: Transcript
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Excerpt:

Litigation Director at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. Winner of the ACLU Pioneer Award. National leader in employment law for the poor, especially those with criminal records.



Bibliographic citation:

Abstract: Interview conducted at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Description

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https://clsphila.org/about-cls/staff/administrative-team/187
Sharon Dietrich became CLS Litigation Director in 2014. She also serves as Managing Attorney of CLS’ Employment Unit. Ms. Dietrich represents low-income persons in employment matters, with the goals of removing employment barriers, preserving jobs, and getting access to employment-related income. Ms. Dietrich specializes in employment issues faced by people with criminal records.

Prior to her employment with CLS, Ms. Dietrich served as law clerk for Ann Aldrich, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio. From 1994 through 2004, she also worked as a contract attorney with the National Employment Law Project in New York. NELP provides assistance to legal services programs, unions and community based organizations nationwide and promotes a national advocacy agenda on issues related to criminal records, unemployment compensation, and others.

Ms. Dietrich has received numerous awards for her work, including the 2011 ACLU Pioneer Award, presented by the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition, Ms. Dietrich received the 2006 Kutak-Dodds Prize from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the Civil Legal Aid Attorney of the Year Award from the Pennsylvania Bar Association (2006), and the Andrew Hamilton Award from the Philadelphia Bar Association (2005). She was named one of Pennsylvania’s Super Lawyers in 2005, 2007, and 2008.

Ms. Dietrich has published many works, the most recent being: When Working Isn’t Enough: Low Wage Workers Struggle to Survive, Management Information Exchange Journal, Vol. XXIII, No. 1 (Spring 2009).

Ms. Dietrich is a summa cum laude graduate of Albright College and earned her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Full text of transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
Sharon Dietrich
Conducted by Alan Houseman
April 26, 2016

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of Sharon Dietrich. The interviewer is Alan Housemen. We’re doing this oral history at the Community Legal Services office in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Sharon, let’s begin by briefly going through your background — law school, college, and so your professional life in very short order and then we’re going to focus on some broader questions.

Sharon Dietrich:
My name is Sharon Dietrich. I grew up in a town called Hamburg, Pennsylvania, which is in Berks County near the Blue Mountains. It was a working class family. My father was a steel worker, my mother was a homemaker. I was the first one in my immediate family to go to college, and the second one in my extended family. I went to Albright College in Reading. Then I went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sharon Dietrich:
I graduated from law school in 1985. I should say about my law school experience that it was a good time to be at Penn. Many of my classmates had a real public interest orientation. They started a lot of student projects that really have flourished to this day, 30 years later, like the Food Stamp Clinic and the Ed Sparer Law Conference. In fact, my first year at Penn Law was Ed’s last year before he passed away.

Sharon Dietrich:
Then I went to clerk for Ann Aldrich, a US District Judge in the Northern District of Ohio. She was quite a character, because she was one of those Carter era judges, the first women that had been appointed to the federal bench. I think they were all characters, because they had all overcome obstacles to graduate law school. She was the first female graduate of NYU Law School, and was the first in many ways. So I was in Cleveland for two years in federal district court. And then I came here to Philadelphia to CLS where I’ve been ever since.

Alan Houseman:
Why did you go into legal aid, and why did you stay?

Sharon Dietrich:
I went into legal aid because I was looking for a public interest law job, and CLS was the biggest and best game in Philadelphia, where I really liked being from the time I had been in law school. I don’t think I really appreciated how much fun it would be to work in this environment, and how enriching it would be, until I got here. I kind of came into it blindly because that’s what my friends were doing and they helped me get a job here. In fact, I’d taken a job with a class action law firm, because CLS was so slow on the uptake and hiring, that I had to renege on to come here. I felt terrible about that because I don’t normally do things like that. But my friends tried to tell me, “Don’t be an idiot. The law firm will be mad for a day and then they’ll replace you, and you’ll have a much better career at CLS.” Sure enough, my friends led me down the right path that time.

Sharon Dietrich:
In terms of why I’ve stayed, I always say that’s a much more interesting question. Because over the years I’ve had many opportunities to do other things, and be other places, and have different types of advocacy practices. I have chosen not to pursue any of them, many of which people would say are more glamorous than what I do at CLS. But, what-

Alan Houseman:
We’ve been trying to get you to DC for years.

Sharon Dietrich:
You and others. Yes, there have been many efforts to get me to DC. But what I really love about practicing at CLS is the combination of representing large numbers of clients, and then lifting what you learn from their experiences and from the representation of them up into bigger things. That is, to my mind, the best way to practice public interest law. I realized that if I went to DC, I would lose that. And I like, frankly, knowing what I’m talking about in great depth. I can walk into any room in Washington on any subject that I know about, and be the smartest person in the room because I have a depth of knowledge from working with individuals, from representing individuals in their cases, from really knowing systems from the ground level up. I think that makes what I do more successful than if I had solely a bigger impact advocacy practice.

Alan Houseman:
Well, you’ve done a number of things at CLS, and you’ve worked in a number of areas. They may all be, in your mind, one interrelated area. I want to talk about these. If you want to pull them all together, that’s cool. I’m not trying to talk about them in isolated ways. But you’ve developed what some, like me, call a relatively unique employment practice here. You obviously have also been heavily involved in public benefits. You’ve been involved in reentry work long before it was a popular thing. So, describe a little bit about these various segments of work. Why you focused the way you focused on them, and how important they are in your view to the representation of low income people in a civil legal aid context.

Sharon Dietrich:
I’ve been an employment lawyer all of my career here. And you’re right, I would say that it’s all kind of interrelated. I came here in 1987 and did what was a fairly traditional employment law practice. Not all that dissimilar from what the private employment lawyers in Philadelphia did, except I was doing it for low income people. I was doing Title VII cases. I was doing wage cases, things of that nature.

Sharon Dietrich:
When the Family Medical Leave Act passed, I was very involved in conceptualizing how that could apply to low wage workers. That was fun for me in the early 1990s, when that looked for a minute like the only law that President Clinton would ever sign. Then welfare reform broke out. That was about the same time I took management responsibilities at CLS. So, it was decided by Kathy Carr, who was a brilliant woman, that I should oversee not only the employment part of CLS’s practice, but also the public benefits part. I think those two things do go together really beautifully. Because really they’re both about how do people have income to support themselves? A lot of the lines drawn between them are blurry, and have become increasingly blurry over time. So, in particular, I guess my contribution to that topic of welfare reform was around the various welfare to work requirements that were adopted first in state law, and then in federal law. That wasn’t the only thing I did, but that was the heart of my welfare work.

Sharon Dietrich:
Then in about the late 1990s, we just started to see so much around criminal records. Again, my practice is almost entirely based on who walks in the front door here. So, it’s not like we all sat down and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to have a reentry practice?” People started to come in ever increasing numbers, who said, “The reason why I’m here for employment law help is that my record is keeping me from being able to get a job and support my family. And sometimes even to have a career. Because the career I’m trying to work in, I’ve been blocked by state or federal law.” So, in all cases I would say that the combination of policy, but especially the individuals who came to CLS for representation, have driven the kind of career that I’ve had here.

Alan Houseman:
Just to try to pry out one little piece of this, what’s your current role here?

Sharon Dietrich:
My title is litigation director. What that really means is actually broader than my title. My role is to provide senior leadership to younger lawyers and case handlers about how to do their jobs, especially the impact piece of their job. There are two things that I do that are more interesting than simply being a litigation director. Number one, I work a lot at getting our staff to conceive of their work as antipoverty work, and think about what priorities they’re going to have that serve antipoverty purposes. Secondly, I’ve really tried to move the staff into a communications world in which you deal a lot with media. You write little white papers, not unlike what you might see coming out of class, but based on our more unique practice here. A big way of making change for poor people is through those avenues. So, that’s the kind of thing that I’ve done in my litigation director role.

Alan Houseman:
Well, let’s pick up on one thing you just said. How do you envision legal aid as an anti poverty mission? What does that mean to you?

Sharon Dietrich:
I want to be doing more than pasting on band aids. I think it is our job, with the very paltry resources that we have to render legal aid in this city and this country, to try to get the biggest bang for the buck. Part of that means we’re looking to leave people better off than they found themselves when they came in our front door. So for instance, we could do in our employment law practice lots of little discrimination cases, which might get some little settlements for individuals. But I’m frankly much more interested in thinking about the bigger picture.

Sharon Dietrich:
A project that we’re currently working on, by way of example, is called Clean Slate. The idea is automatic sealing of minor criminal records. First of all, the sealing of a record or the expungement of a record changes a person’s life. The clients know that. When you’re in court with them and you get an expungement, and you turn around, they are just beaming because now they know that this obstacle is gone. But secondly, doing it big, doing it through automatic sealing so that we can help as many people as possible. That’s what I think of it as antipoverty work. Did you leave people better off than you found them? And not in one small way that will evaporate shortly. And number two, did you do it as big as you could?

Alan Houseman:
That’s great. I like that. All right, let’s go back to some of your work historically. What would you say are your two or three major achievements in this work that you’ve talked about, and this vision you have?

Sharon Dietrich:
I guess one thing I would say is, and yesterday was the fourth anniversary of this, I was one of the first people who was talking to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about updating its criminal record guidance. There were guidances about criminal records that went back to when Clarence Thomas ran the commission. We were relying on them. God knows I loved having his name on the top of them, but they were really outdated and skimpy. They didn’t say much of anything, and they needed to be updated for the new environment in which everybody is background checked, and where one out of three American adults has a record. So, back during the Clinton Administration there was this woman named Ellen Vargas who was legal counsel at EEOC-

Alan Houseman:
Yes. She used to work for me.

Sharon Dietrich:
There you go. And Ellen as legal counsel would often invite me to Commission meetings to talk about the problems of low wage workers. I would push Ellen and say, “Look, you really want to help low wage workers. The single most useful thing you could do, based on my day to day experience, is you could update this guidance on criminal records.” And Ellen really liked me because I think I reminded her of a younger version of herself. She’d been a CLS alum. So she looked at me really kindly, but sadly, like I was the most naive young person she’d ever talked to. She said, “Sharon, I would love to do that, but if we did that, Jesse Helms would have us defunded.”

Sharon Dietrich:
I kind of rolled my eyes and kept on plugging. Years later, I specifically went to an event on a Friday night at the Philadelphia Asian American Bar Association because one of the other members of the Commission — oh my gosh, I’m blanking on his name at this moment. I guess that does come after a while. Great guy —

Alan Houseman:
It shouldn’t be happening to you yet though.

Sharon Dietrich:
Yeah, it is. He was there talking at a fundraiser on a Friday night, and I said to myself, “I’m going to make a packet of material about criminal records and poor people, and I’m going to thrust it upon him at this event.” Sure enough, years later when EEOC updated the policy, he said, “I remember when you thrust that folder at me at that fundraiser that night.” So, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m the only person who was involved in getting this guidance passed. But I certainly was no doubt in my mind the first one who was working at getting this guidance passed. And as we gathered support over the years from the more common Washington lobbying groups, whatever, we certainly continued to play a role in what the shape of that guidance should be like.

Sharon Dietrich:
I had written a memo at one point about what I thought should be in the guidance. When it finally came out on April 24th, 2012, I used my memo as a scorecard. Virtually everything I had asked that they do was there. That was really a game changer because that was the first time that employers nationwide had to confront the fact that they couldn’t just turn down people, across the board, because they had some kind of a criminal record. It was true that the law said that, and so did many disparate cases from over the decades. It was true that the Thomas guidance existed, but EEOC putting out a guidance with a big splash in 2012 had a very different meaning. So, even though that didn’t rock the world overnight, more and more employers are coming into compliance with that. A lot of the whole conversation about criminal records has been jump-started by that guidance. So, I feel like that was a big game changer, and I’m very proud to have been involved in that. So there is one example.

Sharon Dietrich:
I should give you one more. Okay. So, I talked a little bit about Clean Slate. Now we’ve introduced it so far. But I’m very excited about it because it’s got bipartisan support. It’s got potential scope to really clear off hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of criminal cases in Pennsylvania. So, that’s an exciting project. But I guess we can’t quite call it an accomplishment yet, since we just introduced it about a week ago.

Sharon Dietrich:
I guess another example of something that I did … Let me give you a case this time. The case that I feel proudest about, I think, is a lawsuit that I did probably 20 years ago. We sued the City of Philadelphia Police Department for having a psychological examination for its candidates that excluded people because there was supposedly something wrong with them. They were psychotic or what have you. It wasn’t quite clear what exactly this exam was supposed to do, except they were hiring cops and they knew they wanted to screen for psychological reasons, because that’s what you do when you hire cops. They devised a test that seemed more like reading tea leaves than actually screening for psychological deficiencies. As with many key CLS cases, we got the case because lots of people started to come in and say, “Hey, I wanted to be a cop. And they say I’m psychologically unfit. I’m really mad about that. I always wanted to be a cop, and they’re keeping me out of the job that I wanted my whole life. My Dad’s a cop, my uncle’s a cop,” whatever.

Sharon Dietrich:
And ironically, the reason that the psychologists were turning down a lot of these folks is because they were very ambitious people. They tended to move from job to job as they were trying to better themselves. The psychologists in their innate wisdom decided that that meant that they were unstable personalities, because they couldn’t hold a job. These were like the best clients we ever had. These are people who were just terrific. We filed this disparate impact Title VII lawsuit. The city settled very quickly. A couple hundred of our clients got jobs as cops. Now again, you can file Title VII cases to get somebody a little bit of back pay, or you can file a case to get them into, not only a job, but in many cases a career. It was what those folks were all looking for. They didn’t want to do one low wage job after another. They want it to be police officers. They wanted to be involved in public service. Many of them are cops to this day. It hasn’t been a total great thing. There were a lot of downsides to being a cop. One of our class members was killed in an on-the-job chase not too long after he got the job. But it’s his choice, what he wanted to do in his life.

Sharon Dietrich:
That’s what legal services, employment law ought to look like. You try to get people into jobs, and try to get a little bit of back pay for them. Now the postscript, and I think this is a real legal aid story, is this. Of course, part of what we got from that lawsuit was a revised test so that the city wouldn’t continue to reject people in racially disparate ways, and stupid ways that had no reality to being psychologically fit. And we had a great expert who devised the test, and trained the psychologist who administered it. Then the city shut us down and said, “Enough of this. Good-bye.” So, I woke up one morning a couple of months ago. I opened my morning paper and the front page story was, “City psychological exam has racially disparate impact.” I said, “Oh my God, here we are again. We’re going to have to go back and do the same thing.” So we are looking at going back and doing the same thing to try to fix what we fixed before. I will say that in my career that is a recurring phenomenon, that you think you fixed things but ultimately they often don’t stay fixed, and you have to keep coming back.

Alan Houseman:
You have been involved, in formal and informal ways, with the national legal aid community. I mean, you’ve certainly been involved with National Employment Law Project (NELP), but you’ve been involved with certain budget groups, CLASP, some of the organizations like that. Talk a little bit about that, just to round out your world.

Sharon Dietrich:
I would say there are two different ways I’ve been involved in the national community. One is with the support centers, and I’m very glad to have had that opportunity. The other is with the community of legal aid people around the country on the ground. In terms of the national support groups, that’s been great. It’s allowed me to have leverage in my work that, frankly, if I were just somebody whose title was Litigation Director at Community Legal Services, a lot of people would not take seriously in Washington. I hope that it’s been a good relationship for the national groups as well as for me. I bring them information about what we see on the ground. They often provide me a platform to do my work and involve me in their work. That’s been terrific.

Sharon Dietrich:
Equally fun has been the work I’ve done with local programs around the country, and local lawyers. So, that’s happening two ways. The first was when the welfare reform law passed in 1997/8, ’98, right?

Alan Houseman:
’96.

Sharon Dietrich:
’96, how the years fly. At that point the CLS had one of the only mature employment law practices in legal aid in the country. A lot of localities and states were interested in, well, does this really mean we need to have an employment law practice? Maybe we do. So I went to a lot of states and did statewide training on employment law, and the specific way we do it here at CLS, which is so different from what the private bar is doing and is focused on poor people and how to help them. Also in the last couple of years, with the support of both the Open Society Foundations and the Public Welfare Foundation, we’ve done a lot of work with NELP helping local and state lawyers do reentry oriented work. So, that’s been really fun. If we have the luxury here in Philadelphia of having a very mature practice, it’s nice to be able to share that with other places that don’t have that luxury. And I get to go good places.

Alan Houseman:
You’ve won some awards. What award or awards that you think are really special?

Sharon Dietrich:
This feels like a no win answer. Well, I guess I would have to say I really liked getting the Kutak-Dodds Award from NLADA. It’s nice to be recognized on a national level for the work you’ve done on a national level. So, I’d probably put that at the top of the list. I also got an award from the Pennsylvania ACLU that I liked a lot. It was called the Pioneer Award — sort of like people who make stuff up, which is what I feel like a lot of what I’ve done in my career is. That’s another part of why it’s been really fun to work at CLS. We have made stuff up a lot. There was no reentry practice before we started doing it. The kind of employment law practice that we do has been by test and fail. Trying to figure out what we can best do for low wage workers to most leverage what we’ve got.

Sharon Dietrich:
Court fines and costs? We were doing that issue before that became a popular issue, such as it is post Ferguson. Because one day the President Judge of Philadelphia Courts announced, “Oh, we’re going to try to collect $2 billion worth of old court debt going back to the 1970s.” Again, our lobby flooded with clients who’d gotten really scary letters from the court that said, “You owe us $15,000.” What the heck is this? We didn’t know the first thing about court debt. But we did know about the criminal justice system from our reentry work. And that’s a battle we basically won. We taught ourselves everything we needed to know about court debt, which involved a little bit of legal research and a little bit of talking to criminal justice stakeholders. And we made stuff up, and we did publicity, and we tried some litigation that didn’t work. But ultimately the courts backed down after a couple of years. So, I forget what the question started Alan, but-

Alan Houseman:
No, awards.

Sharon Dietrich:
Award, oh yes. So anyway, I think that’s part of what the ACLU were saying they were trying to award me for having made stuff up.

Alan Houseman:
So final question. What would you like to see the legal aid programs in the future be and do?

Sharon Dietrich:
I think one thing I would really like to see them do is to be self reflective. Because the only way to stop doing the same damn thing you’ve been doing forever is to look at it and say, “Is there more than this?” And I sometimes feel like our legal aid programs these days get really caught up for many reasons in the cranking out case after case, generating numbers, doing what they’re expected to do. Staffing Pro Se clinics. I’m not a fan of the idea of 100% access, because I don’t think it’s happening. I am a fan of how can we do the most for the most effectively?

Sharon Dietrich:
And I would love to see programs get out of their comfort zone. I give a speech to new staff every year, in which I give them a couple of hints about things that I want them to do. I say this to my staff too, when I’m evaluating them or coaching them. “One really important thing is to do something that makes you uncomfortable. Don’t keep doing what makes you comfortable.” Another is, “Just be conscious of what you are achieving or not achieving. Don’t accept what is happening as what has to happen.” I mean, if the court system has the same problem that they’re screwing your clients with everyday, do something about it. Don’t just try to explain to them that that’s the way it is.” So, I would really just like to see our legal aid programs be more ambitious and self reflective, and self critical. And you know what? They’d have a hell of a lot more fun.

Alan Houseman:
Great. Well thanks. This has been terrific.

Sharon Dietrich:
Yeah, it’s fun.

Alan Houseman:
And I really have enjoyed it.