B. Janelle Butler Phifer, staff attorney at Legal Aid of Western Ohio, is the 2022 recipient of the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation Denis J. Murphy Award. The Foundation presents the Murphy Award annually to an Ohio legal aid staff member to recognize outstanding leadership and advocacy.
At a reception at Legal Aid of Western Ohio’s office in early December, Foundation Board Member Vallie Bowman-English presented the award to Butler Phifer, who, for more than four decades, has helped thousands of Ohioans resolve civil legal challenges.
Butler Phifer began her career in legal aid in the late 1970s at the Toledo Legal Aid Society. At Toledo Legal Aid, she was the director of the Civil Division before becoming the organization’s Executive Director in 1982, breaking racial barriers as one of the first Black women to lead a civil legal services program. Her groundbreaking accomplishments included re-establishing funding for legal aid with the City of Toledo, diversifying the Toledo Legal Aid Society staff to reflect the Ohioans it served, and fostering a culture of growth and development at the organization.
“We made a strong commitment to bringing individuals of color to our firm,” Butler Phifer said. “When you have a lived experience as a person of color, you understand some of the racial barriers that a client may experience in addition to the legal issues a client may be dealing with.”
In the early days of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), Butler Phifer oversaw the transition of the Toledo Legal Aid Society to an LSC-funded program, expanding opportunities for civil legal services for Ohioans in need. She also oversaw early LSC training sessions, and through her leadership, guided the Toledo Legal Aid Society through the LSC funding challenges of the 1980s.
“Janelle led Toledo Legal Aid through a history most of us have only read about,” said Kevin Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio.
After a decade of leadership at the Toledo Legal Aid Society, Butler Phifer returned to her true passion — representing individuals and families in poverty. Since 1990, she has practiced in nearly every legal area, helping thousands of clients resolve legal issues that threaten their housing, income, and family stability. As a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Western Ohio, her passion for underrepresented communities is apparent, as is her ability to advocate for and empower her clients.
When she reflects on her extraordinary career, her relationships with clients stand out.
“I have one client from a while back who called me recently just to check in on me and see how I’m doing,” Butler Phifer said. “It’s amazing because we’re fighting battles for them, yet they care about you, too. It goes beyond a professional relationship and often develops into a mutual and deep respect for one another.”
Janelle Butler Phifer is an inspiration to her clients, colleagues, and the greater legal community. Her career has benefited many, and she leaves an indelible legacy in the Toledo community.
The Foundation created the Denis J. Murphy Award in 1998 to honor the founding board president of the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation and to recognize outstanding leadership and advocacy within Ohio’s legal aids.