John Ferren has had a remarkable career as a judge, legal services proponent, and public servant.
Ferren grew up in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, where he attended Evanston Township High School. In his senior year, he was student body President, and graduated in 1955. He then matriculated at Harvard University where he majored in American history and was a member of the debate team. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, in 1959. Ferren then entered Harvard Law School, graduating in 1962.
After receiving his law degree in 1962, Ferren joined the Chicago law firm of Kirkland Ellis. While at the firm, the civil rights movement sparked his interest in public interest law. He organized a group of sixteen lawyers in Chicago to provide legal services to the poor through Legal Advice Clinics sponsored by the Church Federation of Greater Chicago. As the first voluntary legal services program in the United States, the group soon grew to include 200 lawyers and eventually was reorganized and expanded as Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.
Ferren’s work came to the attention of the Harvard Law School faculty, which sought to get students involved in the War on Poverty. The faculty wanted to open a neighborhood legal office in Cambridge so that students could provide legal services to the low-income community. They enlisted Ferren to direct the program, which he did for some four years.
In 1970, the law firm of Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells) embarked upon a program to establish a department devoted full time to public interest lawyering — the Community Service Department (the CSD) – to be headed by a partner. To give the initiative credibility, the Firm determined that it needed leadership by a highly experienced public interest lawyer. Ferren, whose work at Harvard met this criterion, was recruited for this position. He joined the Firm as a partner in June of 1970 as head of the CSD, with a team of a full-time associate, a second rotating associate on six- month terms, and other firm lawyers on a case-by-case basis. Under Ferren’s leadership, the CSD took on a number of significant representations including the Black Panther Party in an action against the D.C. Police, the NAACP which was appealing a large judgment imposed in a case involving a boycott of discriminating Mississippi merchants, the OEO Community Action Agencies nationwide, which Nixon was attempting to dismantle, as well as many smaller matters. The CSD was the first public interest department of a major law firm headed by a partner. In subsequent years, many other major law firms followed suit.
In late 1973, Ferren took on other tasks for the law firm as its first Administrative Partner. Also, the Firm brought on David Tatel to support the work of the CSD. Tatel had been Director of the National Office of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and subsequently was appointed a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. In 1977, Ferren himself was appointed a judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter.
During his tenure on the Court of Appeals, Ferren continued his efforts to advance legal services for the poor. He remained active in the American Bar Association, where he chaired the Committee on Public Interest Practice, and through the Consortium on Legal Services and the Public Interest. He also chaired the District of Columbia Judicial Conference Committee on Civil Legal Services.
In 1997, Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry appointed Ferren Corporation Counsel. In that capacity, he instituted a lawsuit to provide D.C. citizens with voting rights in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. This litigation was unsuccessful. Following his term as Corporation Counsel, Ferren returned to the D.C. Court of Appeals with senior status. He retired fully in 2023.
Ferren’s book. Salt of the Earth, Conscience of the Court. The Story of Justice Wiley Rutledge, was published in 2004.