Reed Smith's Sachnoff Remembered As Pro Bono Icon

By Adrian Cruz | March 23, 2023, 4:19 PM EDT ·

Lowell Sachnoff
Lowell Sachnoff
The Chicago legal community is mourning the loss of longtime Reed Smith LLP attorney Lowell Sachnoff while celebrating his impact, which ranged from passionately advocating for the rights of transgender people and for prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to mentoring generations of young lawyers he affectionately called his "ducklings."

Sachnoff, who had practiced law at Reed Smith and legacy firm Sachnoff & Weaver since the 1960s, died on March 21 of natural causes at the age of 93. 

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Sachnoff had stints with a local Chicago firm and as general counsel for the Illinois Department of Mental Health before deciding to open Sachnoff & Weaver with colleagues. Over the next few decades, the firm grew to 130 attorneys before merging with Reed Smith in 2007. He continued to practice law until he was 90.

"He was somebody with a great deal of confidence in his colleagues, and he wanted us to move forward in the way we would like with a very light touch of supervision," Reed Smith partner and former Sachnoff & Weaver managing partner Austin Hirsch told Law360 on Thursday. "I was honored to be named managing partner of the legacy firm, and while many founding partners take a territorial perspective after stepping down, Lowell permitted me to learn by making mistakes, which enabled our generation to improve our own practices and abilities to generate revenue."

Sachnoff focused his legal practice on securities and antitrust work. Although he was involved in a wide range of securities fraud, price-fixing and takeover cases, Hirsch said that Sachnoff's true passion was in the area of pro bono work and civil rights.

As early as 1969, Sachnoff founded the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit organization that connected most of the major law firms in the city to provide legal services for civil rights cases.

"Thanks to the vision that he and others in Chicago's legal community had, our city, while certainly still imperfect, is a more just place," board member Max Stein told Law360 on Thursday. "While his passing is a loss, his legacy reminds us all of the important role the legal community can play in improving our city."

Over the decades, Sachnoff worked on a wide range of matters, ranging from advocating for abortion rights, protecting free speech rights at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, winning a jury verdict over unlawful strip-searching of women by the Chicago police department and working to release prisoners incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Lowell provided absolutely extraordinary legal representation to every client he ever represented, whether it was a pro bono client detained in a local jail or a Fortune 500 company," said Illinois ACLU Executive Director Colleen Connell. "He's somebody I would describe as a 'lawyer's lawyer,' and you could only be impressed how he was able to conceptualize and bring a legal argument to life to advance his clients' interests."

Hirsch said that one of Sachnoff's notable civil rights matters was 1984's Ulane v. Eastern Airlines Inc. in which Sachnoff and attorneys from his firm represented Karen Ulane, a transgender pilot who alleged she was wrongfully discriminated against when Eastern Airlines fired her due to her transition.

Although the Seventh Circuit ultimately ruled against Ulane, determining that transgender people weren't considered a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Hirsch said that decades later, when transgender rights were enshrined into the Civil Rights Act, many of the arguments first posed in the 1984 case were the same ones being used in the modern decision-making process.

"Lowell had a broad practice that was impactful and a model that many of us learned from, and we're better for having him be our partner and friend," Hirsch said.

Reed Smith senior counsel Brian Roche, who has been with the Sachnoff & Weaver team since the start of his career in 1982, said that he remembers Sachnoff as a "remarkable mentor" who expressed a true joy and passion in the practice of law while giving opportunities to young attorneys that weren't found in most firms at the time.

"Lowell exhibited unending joy in practicing law," Roche said. "For a young lawyer just starting out who's  facing the daunting task of learning this craft, seeing somebody who does it every day with joy, zeal and excitement was a huge motivator. Learning at his side and how to practice law with that type of commitment and openness to learning was the greatest gift a senior attorney could give a young one."

Outside the practice of law, Sachnoff had a wide range of interests and pursuits, which included studying Russian late in life with the goal of visiting his ancestral homeland in Ukraine, playing tennis, swimming, writing poetry and political canvassing, which his obituary said he was doing until the very end of his life.

Roche said that despite his seemingly endless workload with both his legal practice and pro bono work, Sachnoff was a huge advocate for living a balanced life.

"You always knew that he cared about you as a whole person," he said. "He wanted to know what you were doing while working, what books you were reading, where you spent your time outside the office, what you were doing with your family. He believed that the complete person wasn't made in the office. Rather, it was made in the entire life you live, and in this world where you're supposed to be available 24/7, Lowell wanted to make sure that the young people he worked with understood that."

Sachnoff is survived by his wife, Fay Clayton; his children, Scott, Marc and Kate Sachnoff; grandchildren Allie, Sam and Joel Sachnoff, Monica Sachnoff-Pinedo and Sasha Rosenthal; and great-granddaughter Sofia Pinedo.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

Update: This story has been updated with information on Sachnoff's survivors and on his cause of death. 

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