Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2008
Profiles in the Law
Public Defense Pioneer:
Jim Hennings paved the way for holistic representation
By Cliff Collins

James D. Hennings

When James D. Hennings founded Metropolitan Public Defender Services in 1971, no playbook existed for how to run a public defense office.

"When he first started the office, it was a truly visionary thing to do," notes Edwin A. Harnden, past president of the Oregon State Bar. Prior to that, "we did not do (public defense) very effectively or efficiently. People simply were not getting the representation they were entitled to."

Hennings remained executive director of the organization for the past 37 years because of his passionate dedication to the notion of "caring about our clients beyond just standing by a client in court," Hennings explains.

His reading of a lawyer’s job description — "an attorney and counselor at law" — led to his belief that "you were supposed to make your clients better for having come to you," he says.

When Hennings retired at the end of June, he stepped down knowing that a good number of the thousands of people served by his office felt they indeed had been made better.

He says the concept now is called "holistic law," but back then, when Hennings started hiring paralegals and social workers to make community connections for clients who needed help, it was a newfangled idea.

It was born from his recognition that whatever legal troubles his clients had pending, they "were the least of our clients’ problems," as he puts it. A large percentage of Metropolitan Defender’s clients can’t read, and more have chemical dependency or mental health problems, not to mention problems with employment and housing.

In addition to hiring support staff to help clients address these issues, Hennings assisted in founding a drug court to get clients into treatment, and to make them accountable to a judge.

"That (holistic) concept is being replicated around the country," says Hennings: "How do we make society better and make clients better, and stop running them through the treadmill?"

Early Years
Jim Hennings was born in a small farm community near Chicago. He came as a toddler to Oregon, where he and his family lived until he was 6 years old. He then spent all his school years in Massachusetts, including at a private prep school, Belmont Hill. Hennings majored in government at Lake Forest College near Chicago, where his grandfather, a lawyer, had graduated.

Hennings thought of going into international and business law as his granddad had done, so he went to Willamette University School of Law, where his by-then-widowed mother lived in Salem.

After obtaining his J.D., though, Hennings was not ready to go straight to work.

"In law school, you put your life on hold. You lose contact with the outside world," he says. "I needed time to decide what I wanted to do." So instead of starting practice, he applied for and got a two-year fellowship in prosecution defense at Northwestern University School of Law.

Always interested in politics, while at Northwestern, he worked as a driver at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, chauffeuring around luminaries such as Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse, and getting "gassed a couple of times in Grant Park" candlelight vigils by the Chicago police.

How it Started
From his fellowship, he learned a lot about public defense, especially how it shouldn’t be done, says Hennings, who then returned to Oregon, where he worked in the district attorney’s office in Portland for two years.

But the Multnomah County Bar Association got a grant to start a public defense office, and Hennings was offered the job. He figured he would work a couple of years there, then go into private practice.

Given that he never left, he came to caution interviewees for the agency that the job can be so "exciting and seductive" that they may decide to stay in it, as he has done.

Some have, but many more have gone on to become outstanding private practitioners, as well as a law school dean,
nearly 30 judges around the state, and leaders in the bar such as the first female and first minority presidents of the Oregon State Bar.

U.S. District Court Judge Ancer L. Haggerty, who started his career working in Hennings’ office, says he got "great experience" there, adding that all who worked there gained from the high quality of trial lawyers in that office.

"It just shows that the people he chose had the ability and character" to achieve success in whatever paths they selected, says Haggerty.

"He was a great mentor, training them to be good, professional lawyers," adds Harnden, who didn’t work for Hennings but has worked with him on issues related to legal services for the poor.

Hennings is "committed to what makes lawyers truly outstanding citizens," Harnden says. "He’s a classic example of what lawyers should be."

During his tenure, Multnomah Public Defender grew from one office with two attorneys to two offices (one in Washington County) with 60 attorneys and about 140 employees. Hennings was a founding member of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and in 2005 received the association’s Ken Morrow Lifetime Achievement Award.

"I like to solve problems," Hennings says in explaining his longevity in the post. In his line of work, "you’re the ultimate problem-solver." In addition, he adds, "It fulfills my desire to aid society."

Retired Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson Jr., who has known Hennings since Hennings "had red hair" and Carson was in the legislature, says Hennings "served Oregon and his clients in that endeavor for a long time, and he’s done a wonderful job."


Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2008 Cliff Collins

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