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Commitment to Public Service Honored
Lawyers and Law Students Doing Their Part
Each year the Tennessee Bar Association recognizes outstanding service by attorneys and law students who have dedicated their time to help others. The awards given are the Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year, the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year and the Law Student Volunteer of the Year. Read the stories of those recognized here.
Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year
This year’s Harris Gilbert award is presented to CHARLES W. “BUZ” DOOLEY. 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.
When Buz Dooley started practicing law, they didn’t even use the term pro bono. Now at 78 and three years into retirement, Dooley is downright evangelistic about the concept.
“It was just part of your duty as an attorney, to help out,” he says of his early experience providing legal services for free. “The court appoints you, and you need to take your share of the load.” The court-appointed cases he took are the only criminal cases he has handled in his long legal career doing civil defense work. Today, of counsel and retired from Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan PLLC, Dooley still practices law. But a lot of it is pro bono, which he does as an intake and placement attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee.
“Buz Dooley is exponentially the most active pro bono attorney in Chattanooga, both in terms of time donated and clients served,” says Charles McDaniel, who is Southern Region pro bono project director for LAET and who nominated Dooley for the award. Dooley goes to LAET every Wednesday morning without fail, to meet with clients, offer advice and, when needed, make phone calls to line up other attorneys to take the cases. “On average, Buz meets with almost 200 clients a year, usually spending over an hour with each — an unmatched level of dedication to pro bono,” McDaniel says. “Buz is truly the best friend low-income, elderly and abused Chattanoogans have.”
At LAET, Dooley sees all types of cases — landlord/tenant, domestic, contracts and more. “Any kind you can imagine, we deal with,” he says. In his position, he points out, he has to be vaguely familiar with all types of cases so he’ll know who to ask to take each one on.
“We try not to overload [the other volunteers],” Dooley says of how the cases are spread around. “We want to keep them happy. I try to use some of my salesmanship with that because I know when the phone rings and the caller ID says ‘legal aid’ they say oh no, more free work,” he laughs. “But they do a very good job of joining in and helping out.”
Dooley admits he can be persuasive, an attribute he says he learned as a clothing salesman in the years between earning his economics and business degree from Vanderbilt and his law degree from Cumberland School of Law at Samford. His tenure as president of the Chattanooga Bar Association in 1991-92 also helps him as he connects pro bono clients with specific needs with lawyers. “I knew an awful lot of attorneys pretty close [as president],” he says. “You get to know a lot of people that way.” So he calls them up and asks them to take a case, and usually they do it.
Dooley credits many of his prior experiences with his career successes, especially his high school years at Columbia Military Academy where he learned “the important life lesson of self-discipline.” He also served in the ROTC at Vanderbilt and in the Army at Ft. Benning. He then went to work in the clothing store his parents owned in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where he grew up. This led him to work as a salesman for Jantzen, selling swimwear and sportswear in several Southeastern states. He loved the work. But when he married Annette, he soon realized the traveling lifestyle was not going to fit into their vision of raising a family.
He didn’t plan to be a lawyer, but several things came into play that sent Dooley to law school. One was a promise he had made to Annette, that he would not continue to travel so much once they started a family. He had told her that after five years he would either open a retail store and settle down, or go back to school for a higher degree. He was mowing his yard one day, he says, “thinking and praying about it, and it just hit me the thing for me to do was to go to law school. That’s what happens when you pray about it, I guess.”
Early on, Dooley says he and Annette developed priorities for their lives, which are religion, marriage/family and country. “I felt like I could help out people, my country and my family if I became a lawyer.”
While at Cumberland, with a wife and two children, he was very active on campus as well as holding down three jobs: working at the law library, clerking at a downtown law firm and working on weekends at a department store.
Now their two children — Doug and Ann Elizabeth — are also lawyers, having grown up around his firm. Doug, now a member at Leitner, worked in its library when he was young, his dad says, and Ann Elizabeth, who practices in Montgomery, Ala., worked sometimes as the receptionist there. “I thought surely they wouldn’t want to become lawyers after that!” he says.
Dooley has not always been a poet but when his son graduated from high school, he penned a poem for the occasion and has since written many others. More recent poems have commemorated his law firm and LAET.
“My grandfather was a real poet,” he says of the man he knew who typed poems with one arthritic finger because he couldn’t move any of the others. “I had a lot of admiration for a guy like that.”
“When I was actively practicing, we weren’t keeping up with that sort of thing,” he says of pro bono hours. “It wasn’t coming through legal aid. We were doing it because we were required to do it — because we were attorneys.”
As for new lawyers, Dooley likes that many schools are now requiring and emphasizing pro bono work.
“That’s a huge change right there,” he says. “It was hardly talked about when I was in law school, except for criminal appointments. I think it will get more people interested at an early stage.”
Like volunteer work of almost any kind, Dooley agrees that you will get more out of it than you put in.
“In what I’m doing [at LAET], I’m tickled to death when I get someone who is competent in the field on the case. That’s where I get my pleasure, from the people who I make placements to. That is the reward for me, just to see that they have some good help and not have to worry because they can’t afford an attorney.”
If you are on the fence about doing pro bono, Dooley has some advice for you: “You’ll be happy that you did it because it will make you feel good. Besides, it will make your mother proud.”
— Suzanne Craig Robertson
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 DEBORAH YEOMANS.
Before Deborah Yeomans even entered law school, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life: help victims of domestic violence.
And even today — 24 years after starting work at the Legal Aid of East Tennessee — there’s no doubt in her mind that she is where she should be.
“If someone came in and offered me a job in private practice paying twice the money, I’d say no,” she says without hesitation.
“I have a passion for helping victims of domestic violence, and I also have a passion for people who need help and don’t have a means to get it.”
Thousands of clients have benefited from this passion over the years, including many who are also facing bankruptcy or tax problems — two areas of the law where Yeomans has recently gained expertise. But the 51-year-old lawyer has also gone beyond just providing one-on-one assistance, sharing her knowledge and commitment across the state. Most notably, she has been involved with the Statewide Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, LAET Associate Director Debra House noted in her nomination of Yeomans for this award.
Last year the group named Yeomans its Advocate of the Year, both for her active support of the organization and her work in Tennessee’s appellate courts, where she had four cases addressing various order of protection issues, most significantly concerning the payment of court costs. She was victorious in defining the proposition that the order of protection statute really means that a victim of domestic violence cannot be charged with the costs of an Order of Protection, House wrote. “This decision has impact across our state for countless victims who seek protection through our court system. Deborah is relied upon by local judges and court clerks for her expertise in the area of domestic violence.”
Beyond her work in the area of domestic violence Yeomans has also been a leader in helping people get what they need out of the legal system even if they cannot afford an attorney, House adds. Since the early 1990s, she has been involved with statewide pro se efforts, most recently helping develop the newly released pro se divorce forms.
“Probably the number one call we get is for help with divorces, and we just don’t have resources to do them,” Yeomans said. “There are people who have not lived together for years, but they are still married because of the cost of getting a divorce.”
Finding ways to help clients like this is what continues to drive Yeomans. While taking on these statewide responsibilities and serving as managing attorney of LAET’s Johnson City office, she still keeps more than a full load of cases. And they are where she is touched the most.
“I understand what they are going through because I witnessed what my mom went through,” Yeomans says. “All of those things that my clients tell me they’re suffering, I heard out of my dad’s mouth.”
— Barry Kolar
Law Student Volunteer of the Year
This award recognizes a Tennessee law school student who provies outstanding volunteer services while working with an organization that provides legal representation to the indigent. This year’s winner is KATIE BLANKENSHIP, a third-year law student at Belmont University School of Law.
Like many law students, Katie Blankenship has long known that she would pursue a legal career. In fact, she has been helping out at her parents’ Murfreesboro-based law firm, Blankenship & Blankenship, since she was a teen. Now at 33 and as a third-year law student who is proud to be part of the inaugural class of Belmont University College of Law, it is her intense devotion to pro bono work that is the defining aspect of her chosen vocation.
In addition to excelling academically, Blankenship has served as a founder and leader of the Belmont Legal Aid Society and two legal clinics, as well as dedicating countless hours to other Middle Tennessee legal advocacy organizations. She has volunteered with Justice for Our Neighbors, the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Right’s Coalition, the Hannah Project and Volunteer Lawyers & Professionals for the Arts, among others.
“It is easier to follow a well-worn path than to create a new one,” Belmont Law Professor Jeffrey Usman points out. He says when Belmont opened its doors in the fall of 2011 he was curious as to the type of students who would attend, knowing that the charter class would have a greater impact on shaping student culture than any subsequent group.
“I know now that part of the culture of Belmont law students is an understanding of the law as a profession of service to those in need and dedication to volunteering to provide such service,” he says. “The biggest single force in creating that culture is the leadership of Katie Blankenship. There have been no easy steps along the way. She has had to lead rather than be able to follow. It is not only the difficulty of the path that she has had to travel but the remarkable distance that she has covered that sets Katie apart from other students.”
Usman points to Blankenship’s roles as a founder of the Belmont Legal Aid Society, the Magdalene House Legal Clinic and the Sophia’s Heart Legal Clinic. “The first would be a tremendous success for a law school student; either of the latter two would frankly be a tremendous success for a practicing lawyer and all the more so for a student,” he says.
It is doubtful that Blankenship would ever use a word like legacy to describe her impact, but she is hopeful that her inaugural class at Belmont “is looked back upon as one that cared about the community and valued pro bono service.”
This sentiment is completely consistent with her fervent belief that lawyers have an explicit obligation to serve the community. Her conviction on this point stems from the examples of her grandfather, mother and father, all Tennessee attorneys who built legal careers “framed around service to the community. To never saying no when someone is in trouble.” Her grandfather was Nashville lawyer Paul G. Blankenship and her parents are John T. and Patricia A. Blankenship, who continue to practice in Murfreesboro.
“In her past two years of law school, Katie has devoted more time and effort than most attorneys do in an entire career,” says Belmont Law Professor Ellen Black. “Her history of service to pro bono organizations speaks for itself, and she serves as a tremendous role model to the law school community and the Nashville legal community. As a law student, she is already making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.”
Multiple nominations for this award specifically mentioned the Magdalene House legal clinic’s work, including its help alleviating “crippling court costs,” that would have been virtually impossible to do without legal representation. Usman said he “had the great pleasure of watching the lives of several women change in a Nashville Davidson County courtroom because of the dedication and leadership of Katie Blankenship.”
Blankenship’s commitment to pro bono service extends beyond personal philosophy. She is driven to bring access to justice issues to the attention of her fellow law students and others in the legal community. “She is the kind of person that inspires people around her and is a natural leader and organizer,” says Casey Gill Summar of Volunteer Lawyers & Professionals for the Arts. “She instantly stands out as a distinct advocate for pro bono. She is unafraid to pursue a different path and lends such enthusiasm and excitement to the cause that she often brings along several other students with her, both literally and figuratively.”
In addition to direct client representation, she is involved with community education projects, serving as an active volunteer with the TBA’s Public Education Committee and leading conversations about civics and the law with Nashville high school students. She also seamlessly incorporates foundations from both her undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology and her master’s degree in humanities in her approach to legal issues. She is interested in promoting holistic, community-based responses that empower individuals.
As she enters the last semester of law school, Blankenship is focused on fostering practical transitions and continuity for the organizations and programs she helped found. This includes defining a meaningful role for alumni to remain involved and supportive.
After law school, she is interested in pursuing a career in public service but she also “has a soft spot for being part of a small firm, maybe even with family.” Given that she has more than two decades of experience navigating private practice via her parents’ firm, it seems in perfect balance that this fall, she will start a clerkship with the United States District Court, serving in the chambers of the Hon. C. Clifford Shirley and the Hon. H. Bruce Guyton in Knoxville.
— Elizabeth Slagle Todaro