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Front Page - Friday, September 27, 2019

Chattanooga attorneys, firm honored for pro bono work

Legal Aid of East Tennessee Executive Director Sheri Fox, Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year recipient Sally Coffey and Chattanooga Bar Association President Steve Jacoway. - Photograph Tanya Richardson, Legal Aid of East Tennessee

Tennessee is sometimes at the top of lists containing unfavorable statistics. But when it comes to access to justice initiatives, the state is leading the nation, says Sheri Fox, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee.

Legal Aid honored the Chattanooga attorneys who have helped to make Tennessee a frontrunner in equality before the law during this year’s Community Justice Pro Bono Night, held Sept. 20 at Chattanooga Whiskey Event Hall and hosted in partnership with the Chattanooga Bar Association.

As local and state dignitaries in the legal profession took their seats, Fox offered a snapshot of the mammoth task the organization faces in helping impoverished clients.

“The average legal aid client is a white, single mother of two who’s earning no more than $12,940 a year. And she’s just one of 314,500 East Tennesseans who live at or below the federal poverty level.

“Six out of 10 of those low-income households experience one legal problem each year. This means 193,000 of our neighbors qualify for legal aid and need our help.

“But we have just 21 lawyers at 11 offices helping those people. That’s one lawyer per 9,200 cases.”

Legal Aid staff and volunteer attorneys in Chattanooga worked together in 2018 to address 893 of those legal problems, Fox said. Of those pro bono cases, volunteer attorneys closed 97 cases, she added.

A study funded by the Corporate Counsel Pro Bono initiative and the Tennessee Bar Association found these cases generated more than $11 million for Hamilton County.

“If you won a case for a client and put money in their pocket, they were able to spend it in the community; if you helped a domestic violence victim obtain an order of protection, they didn’t have to go to the ER; if you kept someone from being wrongfully evicted, they didn’t have to sleep in a homeless shelter,” Fox said. “You made a difference in 2018.”

Awards ceremony

Legal Aid presented several awards to recognize those whose work impacted lives in 2018. Most of the honors expressed appreciation for extraordinary volunteerism.

The first awards were the Attorneys for Justice Certificates, which were presented to lawyers who performed 50 or more hours of pro bono work in 2018. Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Roger Page brought greetings from the State Supreme Court and distributed the certificates.

“We believe in access to justice,” he said. “Unless everyone has justice, no one has justice.”

Page offered more statistics, saying a little more than half of all attorneys in Tennessee did pro bono work in 2018. These lawyers collectively reported working 650,000 volunteer hours. “I applaud all of you who contributed,” Page said in conclusion.

Legal Aid Associate Director Russell Fowler presented the Chief Justice William M. Barker Access to Justice Award, which is given to an individual who has advanced the cause of equal access to justice.

The recipient was 12th Judicial District Chancellor Jeff Stewart, who retired in 2018 after nearly 30 years on the bench serving the people of Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.

Four of those counties fall within Legal Aid’s service area, including Bledsoe, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie. “We had a panic attack when we heard Chancellor Stewart was retiring,” said Fowler. “We filed everything we could in his court. Win or lose, we always knew we were going to be fully and fairly heard and with the greatest courtesy.”

Upon Stewart’s retirement, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee said: “He believed justice was truly for all. Everyone – rich or poor – got a fair shake in his courtroom and his respect. He was unfailingly calm and patient with lawyers and the people who appeared before him. His humility, compassion and kindness were always evident.”

Stewart offered humble gratitude as he accepted the award. “I can’t think of a man more distinguished than William M. ‘Muecke’ Barker – a man who distinguished himself as a lawyer, a trial judge, a member of the Court of Appeals and a member of our State Supreme Court. It’s an honor to have my name placed in association with him.”

In addition to recognizing individuals for their contributions, Legal Aid annually selects a local law firm for its significant support. Examples of the pro bono work firms have done for Legal Aid include dissolving Southeast Tennessee Legal Services and incorporating the nonprofit into Legal Aid (Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel), providing labor and employment advice (Baker Donelson) and conducting an internal investigation of Legal Aid (Burnette, Dobson & Pinchak).

CBA Executive Director Lynda Hood presented Miller & Martin with Legal Aid’s 2018 Law Firm of the Year Award.

“Miller & Martin has gone above and beyond in its support of Legal Aid,” said Hood. “The firm’s attorneys have served on the board of Legal Aid, the firm has accepted every landlord-tenant case Legal Aid has referred to it, attorney John Bode and his team are helping to update Legal Aid’s employee handbook, and the firm’s attorneys have provided pro bono services on other employment and labor law matters.”

Miller & Martin attorney Marcy Eason and pro bono coordinator Robin Musumeci accepted the award on behalf of the firm.

CBA President Steve Jacoway presented the Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year to local attorney Sally Coffey. The award is given to an attorney in the Chattanooga area who has provided Legal Aid with superior volunteer service.

“Coffey has provided exemplary pro bono service to Legal Aid clients through direct representation,” Jacoway said. “She also comes to the office weekly to do pro bono intake, she regularly staffs our monthly child support clinics at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court and she has, by far, put in the most pro bono hours of any lawyer this year.”

“My heart is to help people,” Coffey said. “Thank you for this honor.”

Fox wrapped up the awards by presenting a newly created honor: The Exceptional Volunteer of the Year Award (which is not to be confused with the Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award). The recipient: Russell Brumfield.

Legal Aid created the award with Brumfield in mind.

“We struggled with the award’s name. How do we capture in a few words all the wonderful things this volunteer has done for us?” Fox said. “We came up with ‘Exceptional Volunteer of the Year.’ ‘Exceptional’ means rare, extraordinary, phenomenal and unequaled – and those words still don’t capture what this non-attorney volunteer has done as he’s worked tirelessly to strengthen our financial department.”

Among other tasks, Brumfield has gathered backup documentation for bank statements, summarized travel information into a pivot table to help Legal Aid reimburse employee travel expenses and developed spreadsheets involving salary scales and budget comparisons during union negotiations.

“’Exceptional’ is not a word that’s been attached to my name before,” Brumfield quipped. “But I’ll help any way I can.”

Hall of Fame inductee

The event concluded with attorney Sam Elliott installing William “Trey” Harris III into Legal Aid’s Buz Dooley Memorial Pro Bono Attorneys Hall of Fame.

Harris received his Bachelor of Arts from Washington and Lee University in 1996 and his juris doctor from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1999. He’s served on the board of directors of Legal Aid since 2002.

“He’s always enthusiastic about helping pro bono clients with challenging litigation,” Elliott said. “This is a well-deserved honor.”

Legal Aid originally called the event Pro Bono Night but changed its name after a period of strategic planning.

“Our vision now includes an East Tennessee where justice is a community value and no one faces a legal problem alone,” Fox said. “No one should have to go to court without a lawyer if it can be helped.”