Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit legal aid organization. PLSE’s mission is to work toward just outcomes for low-income individuals who have had contact with the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. Through individual representation, strategic litigation, community education, research, and legislative advocacy, PLSE advocates for a more equitable social environment for those with criminal records, including expanding access to employment and social services.
PLSE was founded in 2010 by four Philadelphia-based civil rights lawyers who wanted to create an alternative legal service model that brings legal services directly into the communities most affected by criminal history record information and other social justice inequities: Ryan Allen Hancock, Michael Hollander, Michael Lee, and Henry Sias.
The Criminal Records Expungement Project began as an initiative of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild in the summer of 2010 through a generous grant from the Bread & Roses Community Fund. The first neighborhood expungement clinic was held on February 5, 2011 at the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. The founders were joined there by a few volunteers provided by CLS, and many from the Church. Almost 300 people attended and completely overwhelmed the volunteers. Word spread. More clinics were scheduled in other parts of the city. In just two years, over 100 law students had volunteered, over 700 client intake interviews have been conducted, and PLSE had filed over 4,000 expungement petitions.
PLSE received its determination letter from the IRS in 2012, and, within two years, received the first of two Phoebus Criminal Justice Initiative Grants from Bread & Roses. In October 2014, PLSE doubled the number of its staff attorneys when it became the smallest organization in the country to be awarded an Equal Justice Works Americorps Legal Fellow in the Employment Opportunity field – an award that was repeated every year thereafter until the program was discontinued in 2017. Under Mike’s leadership, PLSE received two prestigious honors in 2017 – the Louis J. Goffman Award from the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation, which recognized PLSE for outstanding pro bono (volunteer) legal service to the poor, and the Barra Award, which recognized PLSE as an “exemplary nonprofit demonstrating leadership, adaptability and performance” – and it became a grantee of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation in 2018.
Founding Executive Director Mike Lee (2010-2017)
A practicing human rights attorney and member of the inaugural class of the Thomas Kline School of Law of Drexel University, Mike Lee agreed to serve as PLSE’s inaugural Executive Director in 2010. As managing attorney for PLSE’s Criminal Record Expungement Project, Mike trained hundreds of pro bono attorneys across Pennsylvania, organized hundreds of community education events in the five-county area, and argued thousands of expungement and redaction petitions in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, achieving a success rate of over 95%. Responding to a request from the Lieutenant Governor, Mike became one of the creators of “Pathways to Pardons,” the statewide initiative that is open to all ex-offenders and specifically targeted on veterans and those in recovery, which has become a national model.
Mr. Lee received several awards for his cutting-edge legal work with PLSE and his service to the community. In 2013, Mike was named Diverse Attorney of the Year from the Legal Intelligencer, and received the F. Sean Peretta Service Award from the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Philadelphia Bar Association. In 2014 he was named one of Drexel’s 40 under 40 as being one of Dexel’s “most interesting, entrepreneurial and creative young graduates” for his work with PLSE. In 2015, he was recognized by the Barristers Association of Pennsylvania as the Outstanding Young Attorney, by the Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania with the La Justica Award, and by the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network Excellence Award.
Mike ended his leadership of PLSE in January 2018, when was tapped by Philadelphia’s newly-elected, reform-minded District Attorney to become the Director of Legislation and Government Affairs for the DA’s Office.