Home » All Start Local Episodes » Advocating for Communities: Law and Volunteerism with Robert Jefferson
Advocating for Communities: Law and Volunteerism

Podcast published: September 8, 2023

We spend time with Robert Jefferson, a private practice attorney, about his role as the City Solicitor for the City of Coatesville, Pa – and his approach to serving the people of that community. We chat about the non-profit organizations that Rob supports through service on their boards. And we spent time chatting about changes to the legal sector. This was a fun, energetic conversation with an enthusiastic and articulate lawyer.


Gawthrop Greenwood

Local Non-Profits

Intro:  Welcome to Start Local, where we talk with business owners, leaders of nonprofits, and other members of our community focused on doing business in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. Each episode will provide insight into the local business scene and tell you about opportunities to connect with and support businesses and nonprofits in your local area.

Liam Dempsey: Hello, and welcome to Start Local, where we connect with local leaders to support local businesses and nonprofits in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. I’m Liam Dempsey, and I’m here with my co host, Erik Gudmundson. Greetings to you, Erik. How are you today? 

Erik Gudmundson: Hey, Liam. Great. I’m doing well. How are you?

Liam Dempsey: Oh, very well. Thank you. Thank you. Today, we are sitting down with Robert Jefferson. Rob is an attorney with Gawthrop Greenwood, a local area law firm. Rob works out of the firm’s Westchester office. Rob, welcome. Thanks for joining us. How are you doing today? 

Robert Jefferson: I’m doing well. Thank you guys very much for having me. It’s awesome to be here. 

Erik Gudmundson: Oh, it’s great to have you on the Start Local show. Thank you. Thank you. So let’s jump right in. Let’s start with your job. We understand that you spent a number of years working as an assistant district attorney right here in Justice County, and we know you’ve returned to private practice about four years ago, joining the law firm, Gawthrop Greenwood.

Through your firm, you now serve as the city solicitor for the city of Coatesville. We’ll come back to the city of, city solicitor role in a bit. But can you walk us through your career and talk about how the transition of focus in area of law has been for you? And if I can, I’d ask you to touch on what motivated you to begin practicing municipal and local government law?

Robert Jefferson: Thank you, an excellent question. I am a local Chester County resident. I went to elementary school, middle school, and high school here in Chester County. Ultimately, I went to the University of Pittsburgh for undergraduate and law school. I graduated in approximately 2010. The economy was in a downturn, and finding a job was a little bit challenging. 

So, I eventually came home. And then worked my way into the district attorney’s office. I worked under Tom Hogan and I did that for approximately 7 years. During that time, Tom Hogan sort of encouraged us to get involved with the Chester County Bar Association. It’s a local association for a bunch of attorneys. And through that, I was able to meet Patrick and Stacey, the sort of municipal department of Gawthrop Greenwood. And they were young, fun, exciting. They told me about the opportunities that they had at their law firm and how my skills could correlate to municipal work. 

So, I began practicing municipal law based on my interactions and sort of talks with Patrick and Stacey,  who are still here with us, today. And they just said how my skills could relate to what they do. So that is how I got into working for the government, on the private side. Anyway…

Erik Gudmundson: Rob, it seems like law firms in general are getting bigger these days. Do you agree there’s a consolidation trend? And what trends do you see in general with the legal field?

Robert Jefferson: So there is definitely a, or at least I’ve experienced it here at Gotham Greenwood, a consolidation of law firms. And even at another local law firm, they published it several times that they’ve consolidated. What I think is you’re seeing a lot of people approaching that age of what’s the next phase of my life and do I want to join a law firm where my practice can be taken over and other individuals can sort of start doing some of the work so that those people who are phasing out of their careers don’t have to do it, and that there’s a contingency plan for all the clients that they serve.

So here at least Gotharp, I know that we’ve done that, at least three times in the last two years, I believe.  And it’s largely to make sure that the clients that are serviced by the other attorneys and that there’s some sort of succession plan. So that’s what I’ve seen, at least from my experience.

Liam Dempsey: Thanks for that. That’s really interesting to hear. We heard about the really exciting growth and happenings going on in Codeville back in Episode 28 of our happy show here, where we spoke with Susan Springsteen of nth Solutions. And, she’s also the owner of a company called Leak Alertor. And,  within that context, this growth and excitement going on in Coatesville, can you tell us about your role as the lead solicitor for the city of Coatesville? What do you do and how do you support the people of Coatesville in that role?

Robert Jefferson: Yes, absolutely. So this time is really exciting for the city of Coatesville. There’s a real momentum and an excitement in terms of growth, and, you know, rebounding, and sort of change because it was a blue collar steel industry. And now we’re changing, and adapting, and becoming a little bit more different. And there is just a positive momentum.

So, within my role as the solicitor for the city of Coatesville, I see it as sort of one being an ambassador on behalf of the city of Coatesville sort of talking about and mentioning to others within my field that what’s going on in the city of Coatesville is exciting. What opportunities they may have in addition to working with the city of Coatesville, I work with other municipalities and I interact with developers and other things. So just being a solid ambassador for the city of Coatesville is one of my, one of the things that I’m most proud of. 

And then in my true role as the solicitor for the city of Coatesville, when I, day to day legal basis, I consider myself more of how can we get to their vision in terms of somebody has a vision. And then my goal is to help them implement that vision through legal means that they can, the most efficient and legal possible way. So, whether it’s zoning amendments, whether it’s addressing ordinances, whether it’s, whatever the case may be, I view my role as sort of the how we can get to that end goal and implementing those strategies and procedures to get there.

Erik Gudmundson: What do you think is the biggest misconception residents have about municipal legal matters? I’m sure a lot of folks think that the solicitor does X but you actually do Y.  And tell me about you know, what things do they assume that you wear a superman cape for, and what things do you in fact wear a superman cape for?

Robert Jefferson: One of the biggest misconceptions about the local municipal government is like, you said, what authority we have. In general, there’s the federal government, then we have the state, and then we have the county government, and then we have the local municipal government. 

I view my job more as sort of educating others in terms of what we can and cannot do. There are things that we are a local municipality. We can only do things that have been delegated to us by the state legislature. So, we can’t override federal laws. We can’t override the United States Supreme Court. We can’t, you know, change the state laws that’s not within our purview. So, a lot of times people will see things on the news or get caught up with certain trends that are currently going on in the media. And because we are so local and so accessible, 9they think that we can change those sort of national political things. So, I view my role as sort of educating that that’s not within whatever boards entity I represent. Their authority to actually handle. So I would say that that is the biggest misconception about what we can do.  

One of the other things may be that government takes time, it’s intentionally, you know, supposed to go before boards and entities and be reviewed so that it’s right. So there are procedures and policies. So you, you can’t just wave a magic wand and it changes all the second overnight. Those are the two biggest misconceptions, but hopefully we can educate people and get them to the goal where they want to be.

Erik Gudmundson: I think that’s an important thing that this podcast does is really just help educate people on what is out there and what opportunities are there. So I’m curious if I could follow up on that question. Is there anything that you’ve done successfully for residents in general that maybe people wouldn’t assume local government can do?

Robert Jefferson: Wow, that’s a great question.

Liam Dempsey: And let me put it to you another way while you’re thinking about that. Same sort of question, but is there something that you prevented from happening as a solicitor that would have not been beneficial to the residents that they might not have realized that you and your office have been able to protect the local residents in some way?

Robert Jefferson: And I don’t know if this is going to be sufficiently specific enough, but, the city of Coatesville has experienced Stormwater management issues. And largely because of climate issues and other development in other municipalities, and other impervious surfaces being added to ground. And the water having to go somewhere, the city has experienced some flooding in the recent past. So, one of the things that I was able to do with the city and the city’s engineer is implement a new stormwater management ordinance. It’s a little bit more modern, I would say. it captures some of the more recent updates from the federal government from all of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Act. And so there’s a bunch of  stormwater management things that on a ground level day to day basis will help the residents of the city within the municipalities limits become more, you know, friendly, or less susceptible to stormwater events. 

Erik Gudmundson: Well, one of the things I’ve been thinking about as I imagine what you do on a day to day basis for the city is that I imagine it must be very hard to work with different boards of supervisors or whatever, you know, whoever is in charge of holding these different offices within the city. You mentioned working with the engineer, for example. So, as boards of supervisors for different municipalities, not just the city of Coatesville change, I imagine that their interests and their priorities change as well with each election cycle. So, how do you juggle the changing desires of government committees, municipal boards, voters, landowners, and developers with your responsibilities as a solicitor?

Robert Jefferson: Yes, absolutely. And it’s an opportunity to interact with others of different opinions. And I look at it from the positive side. You do the best that you can recognizing that you can’t initially please everyone. 

One of the things that I recognize when new members of a board come in and they run on a different platform or have new ideas, it’s an opportunity for me to learn potentially something new or to help them achieve their goal. They are the elected officials of the municipality or the entity. So, I view my goal is sort of helping and helping them achieve their goal. They are elected by the electorate. So obviously those issues that they ran on are important to the residents of that municipality. So therefore, it’s something that should be, that I should try to help them as I can as best I can within the means of the law as efficiently as I can. So it’s an opportunity always to just try something different potentially and go forward. 

Liam Dempsey: Rob, you and I met earlier this year through our mutual support, our work with the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, the local nonprofit committed to supporting victims of crime, particularly of sexual violence. But all victims of crime, you serve as a board member. What drew you to serving on that board? 

Robert Jefferson: So, as I stated earlier, I was a prosecutor for approximately seven years prior to joining Gotham Greenwood. And during my time, I interacted with the advocates to help me assist or to assist me with the victims of the crimes that I was prosecuting at that time. So, I saw how diligently and hard they worked. I was really impressed by the direct services advocates. They would go out in the middle of the night. They would go to hospitals. They would drop what they were doing. They would be on call. So I was really, really impressed with the work that they did. 

And when I left the district attorney’s office, Chris Ciccarelli, the, the CEO of the Crime Victims’ Center reached out to me and said it would be a great fit. And I totally 100% agreed it would be. I supported the mission. I believed in what they were doing. It also gave me an opportunity to learn about some of the other services that they provided. I only worked with direct services, those advocates helping actual face to face victims. I didn’t realize that they also had counseling services. I didn’t realize that they also had prevention education. So I was able to become a better advocate on behalf of the Crime Victims’ Center. But, really, it was the desire to help people and to maintain that sort of connection of helping that led me to join the Crime Victims’ Center Board.

Liam Dempsey: Well, you’re certainly doing a lot of helping because I also note that you are a trustee at People’s Light Theater, perhaps the most well known and very highly respected theater right here in Chester County, in Malvern. Why and how did you get involved with that organization that not at all related to law enforcement, if you will, or to Coatville? Talk about that. 

Robert Jefferson: Right. It is not related to that at all. A former board member of People’s Light Theater was a very good friend and mentor of mine, Tom Hogan, the former district attorney. He reached out about some of the initiatives that people’s light was going to undertake. So they wanted to attract a younger audience. They wanted to incorporate youth onto their board. They also wanted to diversify their board a little bit more, not just racially, but in terms of age as well. So, bringing in a younger perspective, what is important to, and it’s funny to say that I’m younger now cause I’m almost 40, but to bring in that younger perspective of what they’re looking for and to sort of just diversify the board. So, I was not initially a theater person, but through attending performances and learning what they actually do, it’s beyond just theater. So, it’s a very cool opportunity, something that I’m enjoying a lot. And looking forward to learning a little bit more about the theater, too.

Liam Dempsey: Well, thank you for sharing that, with the exception of 40 being old. Wow! Come on now. Come on now. I’m more than a decade past 40 and I’d like to think that I’m still young. Thank you very much. 

Robert Jefferson: There you go.

Erik Gudmundson: Well speaking of mentors, I have to ask uh in general if you were advising a student who was interested in becoming a lawyer or joining the legal field in general, what would you tell them? 

Robert Jefferson: Wow, that was a great segue. I did not plan that at all. And what…if I was going to tell a student who was thinking about coming, becoming a lawyer, I would tell them to really research what lawyering is about. So TV has glamorized what the practice of law is. You get Law and Order, which is a one hour TV show. The crime occurs in the first 5 to 10 minutes. They investigate it for the next 20. And then for the next 30, there’s a trial. And then there’s a conclusion. I can tell you that none of my cases have concluded in an hour. So it takes sometimes months, even years to get a case to go to trial. It also, TV has also told you that you’re going to become a rich attorney. I have no problem telling you that when I started as a district attorney, my starting salary was $45, 000. So you’re not necessarily guaranteed to become rich. I gained a lot of experience. I gained confidence in other areas of the law. So it helped me with my thinking. So I would tell them to really research it, do apprenticeships, do job shadowing, talk to attorneys. Everybody’s willing to sort of lend a perspective, but you should go in eyes wide open, and not thinking that you’re going to become Harvey Specter from Suits or Mike Ross from Suits or some other big glamorized attorney.

Liam Dempsey: Solid advice, solid advice. 

Erik Gudmundson: Yeah. Let me ask a follow up question if I could. You know, as an attorney, what’s the most unusual situation you’ve ever encountered?

Robert Jefferson: So it was actually the pandemic times. I was a practicing attorney for approximately a decade before the pandemic kicked in. I was involved in a lot of what I’ll call routine, normal practices. Going to court, entering the courthouse was this way, going up the elevator was this way, going into the courthouse, courtrooms were this way. Everything changed during the pandemic, during the practice of law, and especially with this, you had to implement policies for the local municipalities. You had to figure out how you could file things. We had to figure out how we could work remotely. We had to figure out how we could conduct meetings because government still had to go on even during a pandemic. We came up with a lot of challenges that we would not have experienced. I’ve never experienced otherwise. So, literally just how to conduct a meeting became a whole fiasco or sort of a challenge  in terms of just getting that done. So I would say the most unusual situation was the entire pandemic in terms of getting government up and running. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. The pandemic did change a lot for the legal industry. I have quite a few family members as lawyers on, you know, variety of areas of focus, and judges, and law professors and the like. And it certainly changed a lot as a result of COVID. But if you could change anything that you wanted Rob, anything in the legal system, and I mean, then the biggest possible umbrella to make it work better in this country, what would that be for you?

Robert Jefferson: It would start before anybody got to court or any sort of court proceeding, but I would educate our citizens on the actual legal system. There’s a lot that people don’t understand about the legal system. And I think if people were fully educated or had a deeper understanding about the legal system, they would try to potentially work things out or resolve things without entering the legal system. And if you could somehow reduce the number of people who enter the legal system, it would reduce the burden on the legal system, and then things could get resolved more efficiently and quickly.

So, I would try to do more of what I would call a preventative thing in terms of the legal system. If you truly just take the time to educate rather than just, you know, teaching Math and Science in schools, and  teaching the multiple case, you know, times tables, if you could somehow truly allow citizens to understand what the legal system is like, I think it would get, it would at least reduce the burden on the legal system, which would then make it more efficient. So, I would try to say education. 

Erik Gudmundson: That makes perfect sense. And that’s a very logical answer relating to that. Though, I wanted to ask, is there a local business or non profit that people should know about? And you know, maybe I could get lucky with a second segue in the show and you have a non profit in mind that helps fulfill that mission that you were just describing, but certainly doesn’t have to. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. 

Robert Jefferson: No. And we’ve actually spoken prior to this, and I heard that the Crime Victims’ center was already mentioned once. So I must give the shout out to the Crime Victims’ Center. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, Gateway Horseworks or People’s Light Theater. So, People’s Light Theater not only is a theater company, they also work in the local communities. They’ve done educational programs, summer camps,  other sort of… They’ve gone into diverse communities as well. So, People’s Light actually had a program where they went into the city of Chester, which is actually Delaware County, but I still consider that local, and worked with local children to during the summer. So, just educating, and helping, and making the kids feel welcome within that community. So, that was big. 

And then Gateway Horseworks is a local nonprofit where they utilize horses in therapy. They work with recently released prisoners. There was a collaboration between People’s Light Theater and Gateway Horseworks because there was a performance about Leti which was a woman getting out of prison and the struggles that she had during that. 

So, those are two organizations that I believe are doing great work. And at least with Gateway Horseworks, they’re specifically working with recently released prisoners to try to help address the mental aspects of some of the trauma that they’ve gone through. And I think that those are hopefully the preventative educational tools that will be given to them during that time will help them not re-offend or get back involved in the system.

Liam Dempsey: I’m so glad to hear about the Gateway Horseworks organization there. I had the opportunity maybe about a year ago to partake in a kind of a training exercise, an experiential training exercise at Villanova Law School. I think it was with, in connection with perhaps,  local prosecutors or the loca prison, Department of Prisons or something like that.

But it was all around trying to experience as much as we could in the span of an hour in a very nice meeting room at the law school, what prisoners face just in terms of logistics of trying to meet the requirements to reintegrate into society, getting jobs, making it to court, meeting it to making it to probation offices, getting certifications, getting IDs, getting this. And just the logistics of it were shocking and stressful. And I was just in a little experiential training exercise. Nothing was on the line. So glad to hear about this organization. I’ll, we’ll be sure to link to that organization and to the other ones that you’ve mentioned here, Rob. We’ll link to that in the show notes over on [startlocal.co].

Robert Jefferson:  Excellent. That’s awesome. 

Erik Gudmundson: Yeah. Our pleasure. Our pleasure. So it’s pretty clear that you’re giving a lot of yourself to local causes and organizations. And one of the things we like to ask guests on our show is, what do you need help with? How can the local community help you? 

Robert Jefferson: The local community can help me simply by giving others an opportunity or a chance. I think Coatesville is a great example. There are a lot of new restaurants coming to the city. They’re doing the Grand Prix event. There’s a lot of exciting and new things coming to the city of Coatesville and other parts of the county that are truly exciting, and that other people should just give an opportunity to.

So that’s the best way that somebody could help me is just by giving somebody else an opportunity to really, to show you what they have. And it is nice. So I think that’s the best way to sort of help me.

Erik Gudmundson: One common theme we’ve heard from other guests is that they also want help when it comes to hiring and finding talent and retaining talent within their organization. So, one additional question I’d have for you is, are there any open positions you’re trying to fill at Gothard Greenwood, or the Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County? People’s Light and Theater, or if you even know of any Gateway Horseworks, you know, anywhere else from you or your clients and your organizations that you’re affiliated with,, that needs some help on the talent front.

Robert Jefferson: So at least at Gotham Greenwood, we’re expanding. It’s with measured. But measured growth to help benefit our clients. So that is the sort of where we are with Gotham Greenwood. 

Atleast with the Crime Victims’ Center and People’s Light Theater, there are plenty of opportunities to really get involved. Even if you do not become a board member, there are local committees, what I’ll call subcommittees of the board, that help plan things. So, even if it’s just volunteering one weekend to help the Crime Victims’ Center, or to attend an event, or to be an advocate for, or, the Crime Victims’ Center, even just getting the word out there, passing along the social media, liking the social media, there are ways that you can get involved that are not super time consuming, or you don’t have to have a financial degree or an HR degree or some sort of special degree. You’d be surprised. Sometimes, just showing up can be enough. Sometimes even just carrying and helping setting things up can be enough. So we’re always looking for that. Any sort of specialty or expertise is usually welcomed. I know, I would say any specialty expertise is usually welcomed, but, you’d be surprised just how much or literally anything would matter. So, I would say yes, we’re always looking for everything, for both organizations, People’s Light Theater and the Crime Victims’ Center, but you don’t have to have a special skill. 

Erik Gudmundson: All right. That’s a great message. So Rob Jefferson, thank you very much for sharing your wisdom today. We really appreciate it.

Robert Jefferson: Thank you guys very much. It was a pleasure being here. I had a great time and this is awesome. Thank you. 

Liam Dempsey: You’re welcome. Thanks so much.

Erik Gudmundson: Thank you again with my co-host Liam Dempsey.

The Start Local podcast is published every two weeks. We invite you to subscribe using your favorite podcast player, and you can also visit the Start Local website at [startlocal.co] for links mentioned on this show and summaries of past episodes. 

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