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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, November 2, 2018

Legal Aid honors volunteer attorneys




Attorney Nancy Cogar, recipient of Legal Aid of East Tennessee’s 2018 Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award, and presenter Lynda Hood. - Photograph by David Laprad

“At Legal Aid of East Tennessee, we have a dream: to create an East Tennessee where justice is a community value and no one faces a legal problem alone, without a lawyer, because they can’t afford one,” said LAET Executive Director Sheri Fox as she welcomed guests to the firm’s annual Pro Bono Night Thursday, Oct. 25 at Chattanooga Whiskey. “We’re here to celebrate the ways each one of you helps us make that vision a reality.”

Pro Bono Night lived up to Fox’s promise of a celebration with silent and live auction fundraisers, food, drink and live jazz, and an awards ceremony that honored local champions of justice.

Alexander Hamilton Award

Local champions include not just attorneys and law firms, but also community partners that help LAET deliver comprehensive services to clients, said Charlie McDaniel, the firm’s director of operations, as he introduced the recipient of the Alexander Hamilton Award – White Oak United Methodist Church.

In 2018, LAET partnered with White Oak to host several legal clinics at the Red Bank church, extending the arm of justice beyond the firm’s downtown office.

“White Oak is a model for how a church can be the beating heart of a community,” McDaniel said. “It’s also a model for how a church can be relevant not just in people’s spiritual lives but in every aspect of their lives by bringing in great community partners.”

McDaniel called White Oak’s pastor, Rev. Amy Nutt, a visionary for pulling the church’s declining congregation out of its descent by joining forces with local service providers. These included Second Life (a nonprofit that serves survivors of human trafficking), doctors who treated veterans suffering from PSTD and lawyers who worked with people with a civil legal problem.

“We’re the voice for those who don’t have a voice,” Nutt said. “Sometimes, it’s a retired preacher who’s at the end of his rope; sometimes, it’s a single mom with no resources; and sometimes, it’s a veteran who served his country and then lost his faculties.”

Bruce Bailey Award

LAET delivered the Alexander Hamilton Award together with the Bruce Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award, given to attorney Nancy Cogar for helping to organize the legal clinics hosted at White Oak and other area churches in 2018.

“From White Oak in Red Bank, she maintains regular office hours one day a month to meet with the elderly, military veterans, single moms and other low-income clients,” said Steve Jacoway, president-elect of the Chattanooga Bar Association, who presented the award with CBA Executive Director Lynda Hood. “She also works with LAET and the Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance to organize clinics throughout the year at area churches.”

“Justice is a critical piece of our faith walk and a call to reach out to the broken people in our community,” Cogar said. “This is a country where we pledge liberty and justice for all, but across Tennessee, one in three people struggle with a civil legal issue each year and go without help because they can’t afford us.

“I saw those things and asked God what I should do to make a difference in an overwhelming sea of brokenness. He said to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with him.”

Justice Barker Award

Named after its first recipient, the Chief Justice William M. Barker Equal Access to Justice Award recognizes someone who has systematically advanced the cause of equal access to justice in Tennessee.

Russell Fowler, LAET’s director of litigation and advocacy, presented the award to attorney Sam Elliott, partner at Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon.

“No one deserves this award more than our recipient,” Fowler added. “He’s already a member of our Pro Bono Hall of Fame, he’s a recipient of the Chattanooga Bar Association’s Ralph H. Kelley Humanitarian Award and he’s always been there to assist Legal Aid.

“Whenever we’ve asked him to do anything, the answer has always been yes, and immediately so. Whether it’s helping us locate new sources of funding, taking a pro bono case, or something else, he’s always there, and enthusiastically.”

“I’m overwhelmed by this deep honor,” Elliott said. “Often, just a little bit of time with a lawyer can help someone get through something that’s hanging them up because they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Firm of the Year

McDaniel returned to the podium to announce that Warren & Griffin is LAET’s Law Firm of the Year.

“If you went to a Legal Aid of East Tennessee-sponsored pro bono clinic in 2018, you were guaranteed to see a representative from Warren & Griffin. We did not hold a clinic this year that someone from that firm did not attend,” McDaniel said.

Mark Warren accepted the award on behalf of his firm. “Proverbs 31:8 says, ‘Speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,’” Warren said. “That’s been our mantra for 25 years, and it’s what Legal Aid of East Tennessee does.”

Pro Bono Hall of Fame

LAET concluded the awards ceremony by renaming its Pro Bono Hall of Fame the Charles W. “Buz” Dooley Pro Bono Attorneys Hall of Fame.

Dooley, who for 30 years practiced civil defense at Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, was a fixture at LAET, where for over a decade he spent every Wednesday helping low incoming clients work through their legal problems.

“Over the years, Buz touched well over a thousand lives this way,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby, who was in Chattanooga to announce the rechristening of the Hall of Fame. “He can never be replaced.”

Kirby continued, saying, “The Pro Bono Hall of Fame was created to be the ultimate acknowledgment of an attorney’s long-lasting commitment to pro bono representation, consistent support of LAET and effective advocacy for equal access to justice for all Tennesseans.

“Every member of the Hall of Fame embodies these values, but no one has quite lived and breathed access to justice like Buz Dooley did.”

Dooley’s son, Douglas Dooley, expressed gratitude, saying, “Buz was a true Irishman. He could jump in the air and click his heels three times before his feet touched the ground. When my kids were young, they were convinced he was a leprechaun.

“The people of Legal Aid of East Tennessee held a special place in his heart, and I know he’s in heaven jumping up and clicking his heels three times.”

To further celebrate the renaming of its Hall of Fame, LAET inducted a new member: Crews Townsend, a Miller & Martin attorney who accepted many pro bono cases from Buz.

“Buz came to constantly depend on Crews,” said Ward Nelson, who’s worked with Crews at Miller & Martin for over 30 years. “When other attorneys would decline a case or didn’t know what to do with a case, Buz would turn to Crews, and Crews never turned him down.”

After accepting the honor, Crews recalled the first assignment he took from Buz. “He called and said, ‘I have a case for you.’ He didn’t say, ‘Will you take it?’ or, ‘Might you take it?’ so I said, ‘Yes, sir.’

“After that, he started calling often. At one point, I had four or five cases he’d sent to me. I finally told him I’d always have a case, but just one at a time, and he approved that.”

Crews said he never pursued pro bono cases, but always took them when they were offered to him. He encouraged other attorneys to do the same.

“My friend and partner Randy Wilson told me early in my career that when you do well in court, enjoy the walk back to the office, because as soon as you return, the glow of success will start to fade.

“I do think of my career in terms of my walks back to my office, both good and bad, and the times I walked back to the office and thought, ‘I’m glad I’m a lawyer,’ are the times I had a pro bono case and someone gave me a hug afterward or told me I was going to be their attorney forever.”

Justice Kirby concluded the evening by distributing the Supreme Court’s Attorneys for Justice certificates. Each year, the court honors every Tennessee attorney and law student who provided at least 50 hours of service. The goal is to increase statewide participation in pro bono work to 50 percent.

“Please continue to support us in terms of volunteer work and donations,” Fox said in closing. “They are critical to helping us make ‘Justice for all’ truly for all.”