Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 15, 2022

After a pause, pro bono awards back on track

Long-delayed event finally celebrates those who give so much of their time

Drew Clark, vice president and general counsel for McKee Foods, accepts the Alexander Hamilton Award on behalf of the company from Mary Francis DeVoe, pro bono attorney for Legal Aid of East Tennessee.

When Legal Aid of East Tennessee named Debra House its interim director in the chaotic midst of the pandemic, House forecast good things for the firm and its clients.

“As we embark on a new year, I’m confident we’ll grow and prosper while providing outstanding service to our clients and community,” House said via news release in January 2021 after stepping into the shoes former Legal Aid Executive Director Sheri Fox left behind.

By October, the staff at Legal Aid was eager to honor the attorneys and other community volunteers who had helped the firm to realize House’s vision. However, concerns about the coronavirus led Legal Aid to postpone its annual Pro Bono Night, during which it presents awards to its most zealous supporters.

The moment of celebration finally arrived March 30 – five months later than planned but infused with no less enthusiasm.

Taking place within the glass walls of Chattanooga Whiskey Event Hall, emcees and presenters stepped into the blinding radiance of a setting sun to commend those who had placed a high value on access to civil justice in 2021.

Legal Aid staff attorney Mary Francis DeVoe gushed to the gathering of about 85 before announcing the recipient of the Alexander Hamilton Award.

“Serving this community and working with the local bar is an honor,” DeVoe said. “The support Legal Aid receives from all of you is astounding. Your passion and respect for what we do makes a hard job an absolute joy.”

Legal Aid presents the Alexander Hamilton Award to a community partner outside the legal profession that has helped to foster access to justice in Hamilton County.

The firm chose McKee Foods Corporation as the 2021 recipient.

“Alexander Hamilton said the first duty of society is justice,” DeVoe declared. “McKee Foods ... has supported Legal Aid for well over 20 years and served as a pioneering example for many of our corporate sponsors. More importantly, the company recognizes the importance of access to justice for all Tennesseans.”

“As a longtime supporter of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, McKee Foods is very appreciative of the award. We also thank Legal Aid for its work on behalf of East Tennessee families and communities,” Drew Clark, vice president and general counsel of the company, wrote in an email to the Hamilton County Herald after the event.

Headquartered in Collegedale, McKee Foods is the family-owned maker of the Little Debbie snacks and Sunbelt Bakery granola and cereal.

After DeVoe paid tribute to a Legal Aid partner outside the legal field, Chattanooga Bar Association Executive Director Lynda Hood stepped up to present the Pro Bono Firm of the Year award.

She then announced Lawrence & Lawrence as the recipient for 2021.

“Their pro bono efforts go beyond taking cases; they actually ask for them,” Hood noted. “They always have one or more active cases throughout the year and are the biggest participant in Legal Aid’s annual pro bono Christmas tree project.”

Jennifer Lawrence, David Lawrence and Tim Ballard accepted the award on behalf of the firm, which consists of four civil law attorneys with more than 100 years of combined legal experience.

House provided historical context as she returned to the podium to announce the recipient of the Bruce C. Baily Volunteer Lawyer of the Year, which goes to a private attorney who has gone “above and beyond” in their support of Legal Aid’s clients.

“In 1994, civil legal aid was facing a potential catastrophe nationwide as Congress attempted to defund Legal Services Corporation,” she began. “Bruce stepped up with other leaders across the state and nation to advocate for legal services for low-income people. Although 25% of our federal funding was cut, we’re still here and stronger than ever.”

The 2021 recipient is attorney Jim Exum of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel.

“Jim assisted more than 50 clients through monthly phone clinics and individual representation,” House extolled. “He’s also one to always take a case, even if the issue is outside his wheelhouse.”

Russell Fowler, director of litigation advocacy at Legal Aid, strolled even further back in history while announcing the recipient of the Chief Justice William M. Barker Equal Access to Justice Award.

“Justice Barker was the first recipient of this award. We named it after him because of everything he’d done for access to justice statewide, including making access to justice the top priority of the Tennessee Supreme Court,” Fowler explained.

“Chancellor Atherton has been a similar friend and supporter of Legal Aid. Whenever we ask, his answer is always yes – and Legal Aid does a lot of asking.”

As Fowler continued, he mentioned that a phrase from the Magna Carter, the royal charter of rights to which King John of England agreed in 1215, is inscribed on the Equal Access to Justice Award. He then read this phrase after announcing Chancellor Jeff Atherton as the 2021 recipient.

“’To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice,’” Fowler quoted. “Atherton is like those courageous barons who forced King John to sign that guarantee. He is a constant champion of everyone having access to our courts regardless of how much money they have or don’t have.”

Atherton expressed gratitude and humility.

“Soon after I was first elected chancellor in 2010, Chief Justice Barker said I could do more good for more people from the trial court bench than in any other part of the judiciary. His words seem particularly appropriate for me, as chancery court was created in England as ‘the King’s conscience’ to ‘protect the poor, the widows and the orphans.’

“Legal Aid of East Tennessee does so much for so many in those categories and more. Perhaps I’ve been able to play a very small part in promoting the great work they’re doing.”

In 2021, Legal Aid of East Tennessee closed 5,794 cases, helping 11,378 persons. The firm, which is comprised of 10 offices serving 26 counties, closed 1,306 cases in Hamilton County, helping 2,650 individuals. Forty-eight volunteer attorneys closed 270 of those local cases.

Although the workload at Legal Aid is substantial, DeVoe says, a single volunteer attorney can make a big difference.

“We hired four additional staff attorneys in 2021. This reduced the average workload [per attorney] from 11,200 eligible applicants in 2020 to 9,656 eligible applicants in 2021. Likewise, the more volunteers we have, the more East Tennesseans we can serve.”

Upcoming opportunities for pro bono service include a family law clinic in April, an expungement clinic in May and a general advice clinic in June. To volunteer, contact DeVoe at mdevoe@laet.org.

Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel served as the presenting sponsor for Pro Bono Night 2021.

Additional sponsors included Husch Blackwell, Miller & Martin, Baker Donelson, the Herald, Spears Moore, Spurgin & Mattingly, Gearhiser Peters and Leitner Williams.

In-kind sponsors included Cherokee Distributing, which provided the beer, and El Events, which supplied linens and vases for the tables.

Pro Bono Night 2022 will take place in October.