“We’re here to celebrate you and the wonderful work you do,” Mary Frances DeVoe, pro bono coordinator at Legal Aid of East Tennessee in Chattanooga, said as she spoke during the firm’s annual Pro Bono Night.
Held Oct. 27 at Chattanooga Whiskey, the event drew lawyers and judges, as well as friends of lawyers and judges, together to listen to live music, eat hors dourves and bid on silent auction items.
Legal Aid also applauded another year of its guests helping to provide access to justice to local residents who faced a legal dilemma but could not pay for an attorney.
Included among these friends was the staff of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Family Justice Center, which received Legal Aid’s yearly Alexander Hamilton Award.
“This award goes to a nonlegal entity that truly takes our mission of advancing justice for all to heart,” DeVoe explained. “The Family Justice Center has been an invaluable partner as we work with victims of domestic violence.”
DeVoe said the award was also intended to recognize the Family Justice Center for allowing Legal Aid to use its Uptain Road facility for its free legal clinics in 2022.
The Family Justice Center serves as a base of operations for multiple victim services that collectively address intimate partner and family violence, abuse of older adults and human trafficking.
Family Justice Center Executive Director Regina McDevitt accepted the award, noting that it comes during what is both Celebrate Pro Bono Month and Domestic Violence Month.
“One in four women and one in seven men are victims of domestic violence in their life,” McDevitt said. “It’s an honor to work with Legal Aid as we serve the survivors and their children.”
Legal Aid attorney John Jolley, who served as the master of ceremonies for the event, said the need for family law services has never been higher. He then joked that the back of each attorney’s nametag contained a binding contract that required the wearer to take one pro bono family law case.
“We appreciate that,” he winked before introducing Chattanooga Bar Association Executive Director Lynda Minx Hood, who announced the recipient of Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year award.
Hood presented the honor to the CBA’s Young Lawyers Division, which is referred to as the service arm of the bar.
“The YLD partnered with Legal Aid on every clinic and community event, including multiple expungement, family law, general advice and name change clinics,” Hood announced. “Thirty-six young lawyers volunteered at clinics during the last year and provided representation on more than 70 cases.”
YLD President Melody Shekari thanked DeVoe for helping to coordinate the clinics and ensuring the YLD could fulfill its mission to provide pro bono services in its community.
“Receiving this award is an honor,” she said.
Legal Aid’s director in Chattanooga, Debra House, offered a short history lesson on attorney Bruce Bailey before announcing the recipient of the award that bears his name, the Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year.
“Back in 1996, when we were facing significant funding cuts and the possible defunding of Legal Services Corporation, Bruce was one of a number of lawyers in Tennessee who came together in a bipartisan fashion to support Legal Aid.
“Due in no small part to his efforts, Legal Aid survived the cuts in Congress and came out stronger on the other side.”
House said this year’s winner, Rebecca Miller of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, carries the spirit of Bailey’s passion for access to justice.
“She does a great amount of work for us in the elder law space, particularly in conservatorships. She very recently donated more than 52 hours of pro bono work and served as the point of contact for Chambliss, where she supervised the work of the attorneys in 11 pro bono cases in the past two years. She took five cases by herself in June.”
House said Miller has been a vital part of Legal Aid’s effort to tackle the “skyrocketing” number of conservatorship cases since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A quote by Rebecca on the Chambliss website says, ‘I like to use my knowledge and expertise to give families peace of mind during some of life’s most difficult moments.’ That’s what volunteering is about.”
Miller said being associated with Bailey, who helped to mentor her, was an honor.
“I hope he’d be proud. But I can’t take all the credit. We couldn’t do that much pro bono work without the support of Chambliss.”
The last award of the evening – the Chief Justice William M. Barker Access to Justice Award – also carries a venerated name.
Legal Aid created the award in 2010 honor the former Tennessee Supreme Court chief justice and his “tremendous dedication to providing legal services to people in need,” the firm said at the time.
Russell Fowler, director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, presented the award to Emily O’Donnell, a former Legal Aid staff attorney, for her pioneering work in establishing an Eviction Prevention Initiative in Hamilton County.
“Emily believes anyone being evicted deserves to have a lawyer, despite their inability to afford one,” Fowler said. “She’s done much for access to justice in our community and Tennessee.”
O’Donnell, who’s also served as executive director of the Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga and was the first woman to serve as city attorney, credited the people at Legal Aid with inspiring the values that guide her today.
“If you think someone doesn’t need a lawyer to navigate the civil court system, then you don’t think very much of lawyers,” she declared. “It really does make a difference.
“It helps to have an advocate, someone who says, ‘I’m going to fight for you. We might not win, but we’re going to give it our best shot.’
“That’s what Legal Aid does for the people who don’t have a voice. This work has been the unexpected blessing of my life.”
Sponsors for Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Night 2022 included Chambliss Bahner, Husch Blackwell, Baker Donelson, Miller & Martin, the Hamilton County Herald, Spears Moore, McKee, Epstein Law Firm, Leitner Williams, Gearhiser Peters, EL Events, Hutton & Smith, Cherokee Distributing Company and Advintage.