Hickman Lowder

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Franklin J. Hickman Reflects On His 50 Years Of Service

Attorney Franklin J. Hickman’s path to becoming a champion for people with disabilities began at a summer camp in the 1960s.

Franklin J. Hickman
Franklin J. Hickman

But it was no ordinary summer camp. It was Eunice Shriver’s camp for children with disabilities, founded in 1963 and held at her farm outside Bethesda, Maryland. Camp Shriver was the forerunner and testing grounds for the Special Olympics, which Shriver launched in 1968.

Frank worked at Camp Shriver in summer months throughout his undergraduate, graduate and law school years. He eventually became the camp’s program director.

“It was a formative experience,” says Frank, who began practicing law 50 years ago, in 1973.

The camp experience inspired him to attend law school to learn how to advocate for people with disabilities. When he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, Frank wanted to take classes in disability law. No such classes existed, however, because that area of legal study did not exist.

“There weren’t any courses on point, but I connected with the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC),” he says. Frank worked on the association’s legal committee, which filed the original case that established the right to special education for what then was termed the “mentally retarded.”

PARC’s legal committee began with education-focused litigation and then added cases that focused on institutional reform.

“It was very inspirational,” Frank says of PARC. “I saw how law could be a catalyst for change.” In recognition of his work while a law student, he was given the law school’s Wiley C. Rutledge Memorial Award.

The move to Cleveland

After law school, Frank came to Cleveland to work for The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, one of the few programs in the nation that practiced disability law. For the first year as a lawyer, Frank worked with patients who needed legal counsel in state psychiatric hospitals; he was co-counsel in the Ohio Supreme Court case which established the right of indigent persons in Ohio to have legal counsel provided at public expense at civil commitment proceedings.

Frank then left to work for Cleveland Legal Aid’s Law Reform Section.

Those were great years for Legal Aid in Cleveland and nationwide; Frank and his colleagues had the time and funding needed to pursue legal reforms. He brought numerous successful class actions establishing and defining the treatment rights of patients in psychiatric hospitals and state institutions for persons with developmental disabilities and of prison inmates with psychiatric problems.

But, in the early 1980s, Congress gutted funding for legal aid organizations throughout the country and drastically curtailed what they could accomplish.

Moving to private practice

In 1981, Frank joined the law firm that today is Hickman Lowder. He soon started working with agencies that provide services to people with disabilities.

Frank also began representing families in special education cases in negotiations, mediations, due process proceedings and court cases. He has devoted a significant part of his practice to cases under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which defines and protects the rights of children who need special education.

Perceptions changed, seemingly overnight

Frank was the founder and director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association’s Bar Advocacy Project that sponsored education programs for the private bar and conducted extensive advocacy work in the establishment of group homes.

He witnessed a remarkable change in how the public perceived group homes. Frank recalls a public hearing in Strongsville to review a group home application.

“The place was packed,” Frank says of the public hearing. He feared the type of fierce opposition he had seen in other northeast Ohio communities in previous years. But, on that night, a paradigm shift was obvious: The crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of the group home.

Remarkable changes for those with special needs

The change in public attitudes toward group homes paralleled the advancements made for people with disabilities in Ohio and throughout the country.

“When I started, the default placement was institutions, and it wasn’t just in Ohio,” Frank says. “Conditions were incredibly appalling, and they couldn’t get out of those places.” The changes since then have been “phenomenal,” he says.

Frank points to IDEA and the legal decisions and policy changes that have followed. Today, schools must provide special education to students who need it. Decades ago, children with disabilities were forced to stay at home.

But advocacy for the disabled does not rest. Today, the challenge is gaining access to funds that are available to those who need special care, Frank says.

Life away from the office

None of Frank’s accomplishments would have been possible without the support and encouragement of his family. Frank and his wife, Kathleen, met at the University of Pennsylvania when he was in law school and she was a Ph.D. student.

“I told her I was never going to get rich – and that’s how it worked out,” he laughs. Frank and Kathleen have three children and four grandsons, and the entire family gathers at least once a year.

Frank also spends free time designing and building furniture. His work includes two conference tables that are in the Hickman Lowder offices. Frank represents the sixth generation of woodworkers in his family. Many of his tools have been passed down and are from “way back.”

Reflecting on a life of service

Frank’s professional accomplishments are many, including a Lifetime Achievement Award that the Ohio Association of County Boards Serving People With Developmental Disabilities gave him in 2018.

If there has been a secret to his success, he says it was having “a cohesive vision” of what he wanted to do in his legal career.

Frank says the work he has done on the systems level “has been very satisfying. It has made an impact.” He gives great credit to the smart, dedicated, talented people he has worked with over the years, especially his long-time partner Janet Lowder.

And, similar to his work years ago at Camp Shriver, there has always been a personal side to his service. He has kept in touch with many of the plaintiffs he has represented. Grateful families he has helped have invited him to graduations and other milestones.

“It has been an incredible ride – better than I ever dreamed before I got into this,” he says. “It has been a wonderful career.”