Annual Public Service Awards

Find Inspiration in the Tennessee Bar Association's

Each year the Tennessee Bar Association recognizes outstanding service by attorneys who have donated their time to help others. The three awards given, chosen from nominations by the TBA's Access to Justice Committee, are the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year, the Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award, and the Law Student Volunteer Award. A TBA Young Lawyers Divison committee chooses the CASA Volunteer of the Year. You can read all their stories here.

Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year

The Public Service Award is given to an attorney who has provided dedicated and outstanding service while employed by an organization that is primarily engaged in providing legal representation to the poor. This year's award is given to Douglas L. Stevick.

When Doug Stevick was at Yale Law School in the mid-1990s he already knew he would practice public interest law eventually. A great experience as a summer intern with Texas Rural Legal Aid (TRLA) made him want to go back there after graduation, which he did for two years. He then left the flat countryside of Plainview, Texas, to work at a firm at Times Square in New York City. He wasn't in the city long though before being recruited in 2001 to run Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS), based in Nashville. He says he's been a lawyer for farm workers for more than 10 years now, and therefore has "cast my professional lot."

SMLS represents clients in five other southern states and is part of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. He explains that the Legal Services Corporation allocates a certain amount of money for migrant farm workers per state, and it was a better economy of scale to consolidate the grants to make a regional office. "We're part of TRLA and work closely with the office in Texas," he says.

SMLS represents migrant and seasonal farm workers who have employment problems. "Ninety-five percent of our work is employment litigation in federal court"; for instance they haven't been paid what they were promised, or they have been discriminated against because they are Latinos and women, he says.

The Nashville office, armed with five lawyers (including Stevick) and a paralegal, generally serve "a couple hundred" clients at a time. Although they need help, Stevick says money to hire more lawyers and paralegals would be more beneficial than volunteers. "What we do is a pretty specialized area of practice. It's not something most private lawyers could sweep in and master. It's also protracted ... unless [the cases] settle they are going to last a year or two."

Not only can the cases drag on, but change is slow to come, which is one of the hardest parts of his chosen area of law, he says. "Lawyers like me have been working with farmers and farmer worker organizations since the days ... of the late '60s, and still farm workers are being pretty seriously exploited in too many circumstances."

The up-side to this job, Stevick points out, is "being part of a larger movement for social justice and the betterment of the human condition on behalf of farm worker." A concrete example of that, he says, is when he gets to take a check to a client and say, "'Here's the money you are owed.'"

Stevick says it helps to recognize that the slow changes are incremental. "We see the consequences of the slow nature of change in the lives of our clients " who aren't paid what they're owed, live in atrocious housing, are not educated, have no access to the health care system. We see the lack of change in the suffering of our clients. That's tough," he says, "because obviously we do this because we want to see change and want the world to be a better place."

To be given this award named for former Legal Services of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands executive director Ashley Wiltshire is humbling he admits. "I've seen good [legal services executive directors] and bad ones, and he is definitely one of the good ones. This is a great honor."

Lisa D'Souza of the Davidson County Public Defenders' Office wrote of him: "Through his own work, the work of the office he runs and the work he has inspired and encouraged by other advocates, low-income families have been able to obtain some measure of justice."

" Suzanne Craig Robertson

Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award

This year's Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award is presented to Michael Abelow of Nashville. The award recognizes private attorneys who have contributed significant amounts of pro bono work and have demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor. The award is named after Gilbert, a Nashville attorney and past Tennessee Bar Association president, who exemplifies this type of commitment.

Nashville lawyer Michael G. Abelow wasn't surprised when the case he and his firm agreed to do pro bono hit nearly 500 hours of work between him and fellow Sherrard & Roe attorney Phillis Ramsey.

"We knew it was going to be pretty intense litigation " we brought it in federal court on behalf of 50 individuals," Abelow says of Crabtree v. Goetz, which ultimately protected their clients under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The clients included patients with quadriplegia, individuals with Lou Gehrig's disease and other conditions that require continuous family support and professional nursing care. The suit, filed in September 2008, resulted in the issuance of a preliminary injunction to prevent TennCare from cutting the home nursing services "on which the plaintiffs depend. The federal court found that the cuts would force the patients into nursing homes and would cause many of them to suffer medical deterioration and even death," according to the award nomination by Gordon Bonnyman and Gary Housepian. Bonnyman is executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center and Housepian is executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.

"We got to meet a number of the plaintiffs," Abelow says. "All they want is to be as independent as they can. A lot of them went to school, are active in their communities and churches. At the start of this case the state was forcing them into nursing homes " some of them were very young, as young as 18.

"It didn't make sense, including from a cost perspective. People were doing much better in their homes," he says. "It didn't make sense to me from many perspectives."

Abelow, a 2000 graduate of Washington & Lee University Law School, became involved in the case as a result of his attendance at a continuing legal education program in August 2008. The CLE was offered to private counsel who had volunteered to provide assistance to TennCare patients appealing denial of care prescribed by their doctors. "These cases involve administrative hearings that can be quite challenging and demand a substantial commitment from pro bono counsel," Bonnyman and Housepian state in the nomination. "But Mike made a commitment that went even farther " much farther."

"Although I'm very honored and grateful to be recognized, this really was a team effort " Phillis Ramsey put in a great amount of time and [the lawyers at the TJC and LAS] are fantastic and underappreciated. We also had co-counsel from the National Health Law Program, and lawyers from North Carolina and Philadelphia.," Abelow points out.

  "Mike is primarily responsible for making the litigation happen," says Lenny Croce, one of the LAS attorneys who co-counseled with Abelow. "Without the additional resources that he brings to the effort, we would not have been able to undertake this litigation. It has literally saved many lives as well as preserved families."

Abelow admits he did not know much about the ADA when he agreed to take the case. "I was worried because I didn't know the area that well, but we were able to learn it, master and help our client. ... [And] we had people on our team who are experts. Part of my role was to translate their expertise into clear language that our clients could understand."

Abelow would tell other lawyers that the effort is worth it. "There is a real need out there," he says. "Consider doing something that is not square in your every day practice " because you can help people with your legal background.

  "The best part," Abelow says, "was getting the calls and meeting the clients and hearing from them exactly how this had made a real difference in their lives. They were able to stay in their homes."

" Suzanne Craig Robertson

Law Student Volunteer of the Year Award

This award recognizes a Tennessee law school student who provides outstanding volunteer services while working with an organization that provides legal representation to the indigent. This year's winner is Diana Comes, a second-year student at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphries School of Law.

In the job climate like there is for law students right now, every edge will make a difference. So last summer when Diana Comes volunteered 280 hours " working 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and often longer, for eight weeks " at Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS), she was getting a serious resume addition. Yet that isn't why she did it.

"I was looking for summer work that would involve research as well as client interaction," Comes says. Last spring she was volunteering at the Community Legal Center in Memphis when she met Linda Warren Seely, MALS director of private attorney involvement, who was looking for someone to help her with her work on collaborative law.

"I did some preliminary research on collaborative law for her during the spring semester and found myself fascinated with the concept, as well as with the academic dialogue going on behind it," Comes says.

Comes credits Seely with the success of her experience at MALS: "Her dedication, energy and passion are such an inspiration to students just embarking on their careers."

The best part, besides the people she got to work with at MALS she says, was working with the clients themselves. She worked on a variety of cases, "from a grandmother seeking custody of her granddaughter, to a woman who had become certified as personal needs assistant in order to care for her adult, wheelchair-bound daughter, only to have her TennCare hours cut."

"After a year of legal theory, it was wonderful to put what I had learned into practice, and to feel that my legal degree had the potential to make a difference." What she didn't expect, though, was the amount of work to be done. "MALS has roughly 20 attorneys to serve tens of thousands of qualified low-income and elderly applicants in a four-county area. They depend heavily on their law student volunteers and on the private attorneys who take pro bono cases," Comes says. " As a result, law students get an up-close and personal encounter with the law in action: I did not expect, as a 1L, to be interviewing clients, drafting end-of-life documents, or accompanying clients to court, but those are just a few of the many things I did. MALS treats its student interns as true attorneys-in-training, with real responsibilities, and it was extremely gratifying to work hard for results that helped people in need."

She decided on law school as an undergraduate at Rhodes College when she became involved with women's advocacy and helped to found a student-staffed peer sexual assault crisis hotline there. "I found that work to be energizing and fulfilling," Comes says. "Law school is a natural way to marry the dual passions of advocacy and inquiry."

Comes, originally from the Sarasota-Bradenton area of Florida , now calls Memphis her "adopted home." And although many of her peers are likely scrambling for a job for next summer, Comes will be clerking for the firm of Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan, in Memphis.

"Work at the CLC and at MALS has been a rewarding way to put theory into practice," she says. There is nothing like the feeling that you get when you realize that what you can do matters, and matters a lot, to other people."

" Suzanne Craig Robertson

YLD/CASA Volunteer of the Year

During the Tennessee Bar Association's Leadership Conference this month, the Young Lawyers Division will present the 2010 CASA Volunteer of the Year Award to Daniel Rowland of Johnson City. This annual award recognizes a court-appointed special advocate who goes the extra mile in his or her work with a CASA program in the state. Nominations are solicited from CASA directors across the state and winners are selected by a special award committee. This year's recipient, like so many other CASA volunteers, impressed the committee with his commitment to abused and neglected children and the operation of his local CASA agency. But what really made him stand out was the creative and innovative way he puts skin on that commitment.

Daniel Rowland has served as a court appointed special advocate for just shy of three years and during that time he has handled an impressive number of cases. Under his watch, 64 children have been placed in safe homes where they can live and grow free from the fear of abuse. Such a case record is an accomplishment in its own right. But this story is about more than just numbers; it is about the care and concern Rowland shows his young clients, many of whom are scared and confused about their circumstances.

It didn't take working cases for too long for Rowland to realize that children of dependency and neglect could benefit from an easy-to-understand and non-threatening presentation of information about their situation, the juvenile court process and the role CASA plays. Enter Polly the Possum. To help children understand what is happening to them, Rowland authored CASA Speaks for Polly " a coloring book that tells the story of Cassie Bear, a CASA advocate who helps Polly through a scary time. Through a grant from a local organization, the agency distributes the book to each child who is represented by CASA and makes it available to the community at public and school libraries, pediatrician's offices and childcare facilities. This lasting contribution has the potential to touch thousands of children and is a perfect example of the creative approach Rowland brings to his work.

In addition to working directly with children, Rowland has contributed significantly to the operation and administration of Northeast Tennessee's CASA program. To enhance the training of new volunteers, he developed a mock court case that can be "worked" from beginning to end like a real case. He also conducts training sessions and mentors those who need extra encouragement. To help the agency through a difficult staffing situation, Rowland filled in " not once, but twice " for staff members on maternity leave. And he did so without pay, saving CASA thousands of dollars. Finally, to spread the message of the good work CASA is doing, Rowland frequently speaks to community groups on behalf of the agency.

In addition to all these stellar accomplishments, one additional element of Rowland's involvement with CASA caught the attention of the award committee. Rowland is a Rule 31 mediator, and when he is not volunteering for CASA, he works at a local attorney's office helping clients resolve disputes outside of court. But even at this "other" job, the work of CASA is not far from his heart. In his employment contract with the law firm, Rowland included a provision that a portion of his fees is to be paid to CASA of Northeast Tennessee. Again, this innovative approach to securing additional funding for the agency makes Rowland an exceptional CASA volunteer.

"Daniel Rowland truly goes above and beyond what most would do," Stephanie Sanders, executive director of CASA of Northeast Tennessee, wrote in her nomination. "Just when you think he cannot top himself, he surprises us again with his generosity and willingness to serve and help others."

Speaking for the awards committee, Knoxville lawyer and YLD Children's Issues Committee Chair Katrina Atchley said this year's nominees all reflected a strong commitment to CASA, but that "Rowland's work portrayed initiative, enthusiasm and a unique creativity that made his nomination stand out from the rest."

Both Rowland and CASA of Northeast Tennessee will receive a cash award and be recognized at the TBA Young Lawyers Division's mid-winter board dinner on Jan. 15 in Nashville.

" Stacey Shrader