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Front Page - Friday, June 29, 2012

Legal Aid of East Tennessee honors providers of pro bono services

On June 21, dozens of friends and supporters of Legal Aid of East Tennessee joined to celebrate the achievements of a law firm, a philanthropist, a hospital and an attorney at the 2012 Pro Bono Night at Bessie Smith Hall.

The words on the lips of nearly every speaker were “equal access to justice,” a phrase which in Tennessee has come to signify the considerable efforts of legal professionals across the state to ensure every citizen who needs legal counsel or representation receives it, regardless of his or her ability to pay for the service. Co-hosted by LAET, the Pro Bono Committee and the Young Lawyers Division of the Chattanooga Bar Association, the evening featured a silent auction, an awards ceremony, catered food and drinks and live music.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee in her keynote address said the United States is founded on the principle of equal justice under the law. “In 1892, Francis Bellamy composed the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1942, Congress formally adopted it.

We learned to recite it in elementary school. Congress opens each of its sessions with a recital of the pledge. Local and state government bodies, as well as private organizations, recite the pledge at the beginning of their meetings. The pledge ends with these important words: ‘With liberty and justice for all.’”

However, Justice Lee said the U.S. is lagging behind other countries in providing legal assistance to the poor. “We rely on providing a limited number of lawyers through legal aid organizations to represent how ever many poor people they can represent, and the rest must fend for themselves.”

Justice Lee also spoke of the “great unmet legal needs” in East Tennessee, a 26-county area where 19 lawyers serve over 400,000 people who qualify for legal aid. In the southern portion of East Tennessee, six attorneys cover a ten-county area with a poverty population of 150,000. Yet as the number of poor people has increased, funding for legal services has gone down.

While more attorneys reported pro bono work in 2010 than in 2009, Justice Lee said the legal community can do better. “Our goal is to have 50 percent of lawyers in Tennessee providing an average of 50 hours per year of pro bono service by 2015. I know when I tell you these things, I am preaching to the choir,” she said.

Justice Lee encouraged those in the room to continue to give of their time, knowledge and abilities. “With the low amount of funding for Legal Aid, and with the high number of poor people who cannot afford a lawyer, it is imperative that community-minded, compassionate and dedicated professionals like you step up and help out. You are the life preserver for those drowning in a sea of poverty that need legal representation. You are what makes ‘justice for all’ a reality for many people.

“On behalf of the Tennessee Supreme Court, I thank you for your service.”

Firm Of The Year Award

Following her speech, Justice Lee presented the Firm of the Year Award to Chattanooga law firm Luther-Anderson.

“Luther-Anderson has a longstanding commitment to the cause of ‘justice for all.’ Its lawyers continually take on a large number of pro bono cases. Also, the cases handled are among the most complex and challenging. When asked to help a pro bono client, this firm always says yes.

“Luther-Anderson is a superb example of the fulfillment of the professional responsibilities Tennessee law firms have in advancing our legal system and making it accessible to all regardless of income,” she said.

Attorneys Alaric Henry and Amanda Dunn accepted on behalf of the firm.

Equal Access To Justice Award

Corrine Allen, executive director of the Benwood Foundation, received the Chief Justice William M. Barker Equal Access to Justice Award. LAET presents the award to someone who has achieved “significant systemic change in advancing the cause of justice,” said Russell Fowler, associate director.

“Corrine Allen, through her work at the Benwood Foundation, has done much to make Chattanooga a better place to live. She recognizes that justice is not only the business of lawyers and judges,” Fowler said.

Engraved on the award are these words from the Magna Carta: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”

“Corrine Allen and the previous winners of this award - Chief Justice Barker and Judge Jeff Hollingsworth - are like those brave barons who forced King John to approve the Magna Carta in 1215, and thereby expand justice for all,” Fowler said.

Alexander Hamilton Award

LAET gave the inaugural Alexander Hamilton Award to Erlanger Heath System. Named after the first lawyer to devote nearly his entire practice to pro bono work, the award honored Erlanger for joining LAET in creating the first medical-legal partnership in Tennessee. The program places an outside lawyer in the hospital to represent patients with legal matters impacting their health.

LAET Executive Director David Yoder and Dale Hetzler, general counsel for Erlanger, began working on the Erlanger Health Law Partnership in 2011.

“Early in my career, I saw the impact resolving a civil legal problem can have in creating a positive medical outcome while taking the testimony of a critically ill hospital patient in a stressful case and watching the monitors show a decrease in both blood pressure and heart rate,” Yoder said. “In six short months, the Erlanger Health Law Partnership has already proven successful in helping patients improve health care outcomes and reduce hospital costs.”

Hetzler accepted the award on behalf of Erlanger and spoke about the commitment of those involved.

“Here with me tonight is Dr. Mukta Panda, chair of the department of internal medicine at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Medicine, who has welcomed Emily Lay, LAET attorney, to participate in multi-disciplinary rounds so residents can learn from having an attorney available to address legal matters impacting a patient’s health, and the attorney can learn about the effects of the legal issues attending poverty on the health of a client. What you see before you is a doctor as advocate and an attorney as healer.”

A grant from the Benwood Foundation made the program possible and will fund the program for another year.

Volunteer Attorney Of The Year Award

Each year, LAET gives the Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Attorney of the Year Award to a lawyer who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide exceptional pro bono services. Past winners include Harry Cash, Charles “Buz” Dooley and Richard Ruth, Jr., among other highly-respected attorneys. This year, LAET added Tiffany Campbell to that distinguished list for her dedication to achieving justice for her pro bono clients.

A sole practitioner who focuses her practice on the areas of family, domestic and juvenile law, Campbell in 2011 assisted over eight clients a month, with many of the cases involving extended litigation. In introducing Campbell, Charlie McDaniel, pro bono director for LAET, said she approaches her pro bono work “with a sense of fearlessness.”

“Speaking about one case, I told Tiffany it would be incredibly difficult, and bordering in impossible, to find a volunteer due to the perfect storm of difficult facts, difficult law and a difficult client. Tiffany said, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Campbell said it is an honor to be in the company of the past recipients of the award. “I am inspired by their tireless efforts to bring awareness to the Access to Justice Initiative. Now, more than ever, low-income families need free legal representation. I have made a commitment to incorporate pro bono family law cases into my solo practice. While family law cases can be challenging, I feel obligated to take on these clients. Every person deserves dignity, hope, and equal access to justice.

“I encourage other new attorneys to join the Access to Justice Initiative by accepting pro bono cases. It’s an excellent opportunity to become involved in the local community and to gain experience in different practice areas.”