Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 29, 2016

Legal Aid honors local advocates

LAET Pro Bono Director Paige Evatt (left) presents the Alexander Hamilton Award to Habitat for Humanity’s Director of Family Services Cheryl Marsh and Executive Director David Butler.

Chancellor Jeff Atherton began his duties as host of Legal Aid of Southeast Tennessee’s Pro Bono Night 2016 with three words he said strike terror into the hearts of trial judges everywhere – pro se litigants. Legal Aid (LAET) then spent the evening of July 21 honoring individuals who have worked to ensure those who need legal representation and access to justice have it, regardless of their ability to pay for it. The event took place at Bessie Smith Hall, and included live music, hors d’oeuvres, and a silent auction fundraiser.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Robert Page expressed his appreciation for the staff of LAET and the firm’s volunteer attorneys during his keynote speech. “My grandfather told me you can learn a lot about someone by how he or she treats the people who can’t do them any good,” he said. “Keep up the great work.”

Volunteer Lawyer of the Year

LAET Executive Director Sheri Fox announced the recipient of the firm’s first award of the evening – the Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award. While LAET is staffed by lawyers who help low-income people every day, the firm also relies on volunteer attorneys to take cases. Fox said 18 percent of the cases LAET has resolved in Hamilton County in 2016 have been handled by volunteer attorneys – a remarkable number compared to the national average.

“Tonight is not about the work Legal Aid does; it’s about you, and the work you do for Legal Aid,” Fox said. “You do intake, you donate your time, and you share your expertise with us. I could stand here all night telling you about the cases you and your colleagues have handled. I could share things that would leave you in tears, and more committed than ever to pro bono work.”

Fox then announced attorney Susan Gruber as the recipient of the Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award. “Susan is a regular at Legal Aid, and by regular, I mean she keeps regular office hours and sees regular clients,” Fox said. “She consistently takes the more difficult and complex cases, and is one of the most productive pro bono attorneys in terms of hours worked and cases handled. Susan’s zealous advocacy and continued hard work on behalf of pro bono clients has made a difference in the lives of people who would otherwise have gone unrepresented.”

Upon accepting the award – and joining a group that includes attorneys Max Bahner, Marcy Eason, Dick Ruth, and others of their stature – Gruber said being a volunteer attorney has changed her. “Being a volunteer lawyer has changed my outlook on the law and what it means to me to be a lawyer,” she said. “Thanks to the entire staff for all you have taught me, for making me proud to be able to call myself an attorney in Tennessee, and for letting me help tip the scales of justice.” (See page 4 to read Gruber’s entire speech.)

Equal Access to Justice Award

LAET Associate Director Russell Fowler then presented the Chief Justice William M. Barker Equal Access to Justice Award to volunteer attorney and LAET board member Trey Harris. The firm gives the award annually to an individual who will “stand up for what is right and just, no matter how difficult,” Fowler said. Previous recipients include Barker; Judge Jeff Hollingsworth; Corinne Allen, former executive director of the Benwood Foundation; Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee; and Judge Rob Philyaw.

Fowler said Harris, who has served on the board of LAET since 2002, is “a great friend of Legal Aid and, more importantly, a great friend of justice.”

Harris said his most fulfilling cases have been pro bono cases. “When you win a case with a client of means, you get tickets or a bottle of wine. They can afford to express their appreciation,” he said. “But my most memorable case was with a client who had nothing. He was in a rough situation at home, and I was able to help him. After the case was over, he bought me an outdoor thermometer that probably cost less than ten bucks.

“The people who aren’t used to having the kind of protection we can provide often are more appreciative than anyone else.”

Firm of the Year and Alexander Hamilton Award

Legal Aid’s new pro bono director, Paige Evatt, announced the final two awards of the evening – the Pro Bono Firm of the Year Award and the Alexander Hamilton Award – together, as the recipients were chosen for their participation in a single event.

In February of this year, the Law Offices of David Coates partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga and LAET to offer free estate planning services to local Habitat for Humanity homeowners. Coates provided the services in a marathon legal clinic on Feb. 6 at Chattanooga Housing Authority. “Everybody needs a will,” Coates said at the time, “especially if you own a home.” Coates and his team of volunteers prepared 40 wills during the event.

LAET chose the Law Offices of David Coates as its Firm of the Year for its work on the project, which Evatt said was one of the largest single day clinics in LAET’s history. In addition, LAET selected Habitat for Humanity as the recipient of the Alexander Hamilton Award, which recognizes a non-legal partner in the Chattanooga community that has advanced the cause of justice.

Evatt said the clinic came together in a miraculous way. “David opened his law office in Chattanooga, and immediately sought to make a difference here. At the same time, Habitat for Humanity contacted us about issues their clients were having. We put the two together, and came up with the estate planning clinic,” she said.

Coates said his experiences as a military lawyer in the Middle East, where he trained lawyers and judges about the rule of law, moved him to seek out ways to help others when he returned to the U.S. “If someone does something to me, I have access to a legal system that can help. But I’ve been in places where you’re not going to see justice unless you can pay the judge,” Coates said. “So it’s my duty as a lawyer, and as someone who wants justice in the world, to help make this city a better place for everyone.”

Habitat for Humanity Executive Director David Butler and Director of Family Services Cheryl Marsh accepted the Alexander Hamilton award on behalf of their organization. “We are truly grateful and surprised to receive this award,” Marsh said. “We serve those families in our community who are ‘the least of these.’ They tend to live paycheck to paycheck. So we were blessed to be able to partner with David and Legal Aid to offer this opportunity to our homeowners. We appreciate you, and are proud of the work you do.”

Chancellor Atherton closed the awards portion of the evening by thanking the winners for “not taking the easy way.”

“Perhaps one of the biggest enemies of the legal community is the tendency to follow the path of least resistance,” he said. “So we thank those who, with persistence and open hearts, strive to help those who cannot help themselves.” 

To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.