Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 27, 2017

Legal Aid adds two to Hall of Fame

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Bivins and 2017 Legal Aid of East Tennessee Pro Bono Hall of Fame inductee Jay Ku. - Provided

Two Chattanooga attorneys are this year’s inductees into Legal Aid of East Tennessee’s Pro Bono Hall of Fame. Solo practitioner Jay Ku and Leslie McWilliams of McWilliams & Gold both focus their volunteer efforts on family law cases.

LAET Pro Bono Project Director Paige Evatt says Ku and McWilliams are “true pro bono heroes.”

“The Pro Bono Hall of Fame is the ultimate acknowledgement 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,” she says.

“Jay and Leslie are true trailblazers in our community. They both have a long history of service and are still volunteering with Legal Aid. Not only that, they take difficult cases.”

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins calls Ku and McWilliams “true models of the legal profession.”

“ Without volunteers like Jay and Leslie, who make sacrifices day in and day out on behalf of others, Tennessee would not be a leader in the effort to provide equal access to justice,” Bivins says. “Even worse, the people of the state would suffer.”

Ku began her career as a Legal Aid staff attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. After moving to Chattanooga, she became a volunteer and eventually a staff attorney at LAET. After Ku’s time with Legal Aid ended, she continued to do pro bono work for the organization.

Throughout her career, Ku has demonstrated a heart for children and families.

She’s worked as a guardian ad litem for the child support division of Hamilton County Juvenile Court, a staff attorney for the Department of Children’s Services and as a Rule 31 mediator with a certification in domestic violence work.

Ku was also the recipient of LAET’s Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award in 2014.

“It would be easy for Jay to look at all she’s done and hang up her hat. But she hasn’t.

“She’s still a regular volunteer at LAET and the lead attorney for our pro se divorce clinics,” Evatt adds.

“Divorce is a difficult subject, but Jay conducts these clinics in a way that keeps the lines of communication open. This in turn allows people to co-parent their children and live successful lives.”

“Jay is well-respected and well-loved by her family, friends, colleagues, community and countless clients,” Evatt continues. “It is our honor to welcome her to the Pro Bono Hall of Fame.”

Ku encourages all attorneys to help others through pro bono work. “More people than ever need access to justice and legal representation in the courts,” she says. “It’s no longer just the underclass. It’s also people who have become economically disadvantaged.”

McWilliams graduated from Florida State University College of Law in 1983. While a student at Florida State, she was a single parent to her daughter, Stephanie.

McWilliams began her career with a two-and-a-half-year stint as an assistant prosecutor in Little Rock, Arkansas.

She followed that position with three years as an administrative attorney in Tallahassee, Florida.

Upon marrying, McWilliams moved to Tennessee, where she connected with attorneys Mary Ann Green and Karla Gothard, who needed help with their family law practice. She continued to practice family law after her partners left and eventually became certified in the field.

McWilliams’ law partner, Barry Gold, says volunteering at Legal Aid was an easy step for her.

“She grew up poor, she’s a survivor of serious domestic violence and she wants to help,” Gold says.

McWilliams’ desire to make a difference extends to her home, where she’s fostered nine children, one of whom she adopted.

“The first time I met Leslie was as opposing counsel,” Evatt recalls. “She taught me an important lesson through that experience: representing clients means making their problems your own and fighting for them as if the cases were your own.

Evatt says McWilliams’ zealousness is undeniable.

“Every client she’s represented through Legal Aid sends us a glowing review of her work. They’ve called her a god-send, an angel, a warrior and a friend,” Evatt adds.

“I’m a social worker with a law degree,” McWilliams says.

“But I’m fortunate and blessed to be able to make legal families and help others in distress. This is a great job.”

McWilliams and her husband are currently splitting their time between Chattanooga and Apalachicola, Florida.

LAET announced its 2017 Pro Bono Hall of Fame inductees during a reception at Hart Gallery on Oct. 19. Justice Blevins, along with a number of local judges and attorneys, attended the event. Sheri Fox, executive director of LAET, was also present.

The reception and induction were held in celebration of October as National Celebrate Pro Bono Month.

Previous indutees into LAET’s Pro Bono Hall of Fame include Max Bahner, Bruce Bailey, Thomas Caldwell, William Carriger, Charles “Buz” Dooley, Marcy Eason, Richard Ruth Jr., Harold Schwartz Jr., Richard Crotteau, Sam Elliott, Joseph Simpson, Glenn Stophel, Judge Jeff Hollingsworth, Virginia Love, the Hon. William “Meucke” Barker and Chancellor Howell Peoples.