by Cory Hohnbaum
I graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Westminster is best known as the place where Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946. The speech is considered one of the opening volleys announcing the beginning of the Cold War. The National Churchill Museum is located on the campus of Westminster and you couldn’t help but be a Churchill fan after four years at Westminster. One of Churchill’s most repeated quotes is, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."
This is not a revelation to the lawyers of the Mecklenburg County Bar. It is hard to find a nonprofit organization in Mecklenburg County that hasn’t benefitted from the volunteer time, effort and expertise of one of our lawyers. From serving on boards to putting up walls in a Habitat house, that spirit of service has been passed down from each generation of lawyers to the next and is part of the fabric of our community.
There are lawyers in our community who take that sense of service to others to another level and devote their professional life to public service. Lawyers who have made that choice are a source of inspiration to me and an enduring reminder of what is noble about our profession. I recently spoke to one of those lawyers, Doug Sea, whom I have admired since I started practicing law. Doug has spent all but a few months of his 35 years practicing public interest law, the last 31 of those years with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. Although there were many reasons for his choice to both start a career in the public interest arena and his choosing to stay committed to that choice, Doug is driven to help the underprivileged, to ensure that the voiceless in our society are heard and to safeguard their rights. He is motivated to work on making a difference, to funnel his considerable skill into cases, in his words, "that matter." And he has done exactly that.
Doug is the preeminent public benefits litigator representing low-income people in North Carolina. He has been lead counsel or co-counsel in most of the major class action or precedent-setting court cases on behalf of low-income people seeking cash assistance, health care and services such as child support enforcement and job training.
While known mostly for his litigation successes, Doug has contributed in other ways to the cause of justice for low-income people and to the world of legal services. His credibility as a litigator gives him a powerful platform for quiet but effective non-litigation advocacy. As but one example, his work to negotiate a child health services coverage policy with NC Medicaid officials has resulted in guidelines that are a national model—modified for other states and cited by the federal Medicaid agency. Doug works informally with many other local and state agencies, consults with advocates in many other human services agencies and sits on many advisory committees on issues affecting children and families, the elderly, disabled persons and those living in poverty.
Inspiration to do the right thing can be found in many places. With our busy lives, it is easy to get lost in ourselves. Carving out time to serve others sometimes seems impossible. The devotion of those of our fellow lawyers who are in the trenches every day serving the underprivileged—lawyers like Doug Sea—serves as a useful reminder of the wisdom of Churchill’s words.