Just Do It!

Don Paine had been a columnist for the Journal three years already when in 1992 he was one of the recipients of the newly established Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year awards, the forerunner of today’s Public Service Awards (see this year’s winners). He was one of three honored that year, along with Memphis lawyer Brooke Lathram and the Nashville Pro Bono Program Inc. In that story Paine speaks words that still are true more than two decades later:

Donald F. Paine doesn’t remember when he started donating legal services to people who could not afford a lawyer — he just always has.

“I think I’m being honest with myself when I say that I’ve always thought you’re just supposed to do that,” he says. “I’ve just been taking [pro bono cases] all along, if someone didn’t have the money.” Also, he laughs, “I was out browbeating folks to sign up, so I sort of feel like I should keep doing it myself. Plus, they need lawyers,” Paine says of the legal service organizations in the Knoxville area. … He is a long-time consistent supporter of the Volunteer Legal Assistance Program in Knoxville, where he gets many of his pro bono referrals. He doesn’t keep track of how much time he spends on pro bono cases. “I wouldn’t even have any idea,” he says.

“A lot more pro bono work goes on than is recognized,” he says, pointing out that there are many lawyers who donate time without going through a formal referral process.

“If somebody comes through the door with a meritorious case — who can’t pay or can’t pay much — you ought to give some thought to taking the case,” he says.

“I do believe very fervently, though, that a lawyer should to able to pick and choose cases, other than criminal appointments. I’ve turned down pro bono cases just like I’ve turned down those that aren’t pro bono.”

In presenting the award, [then Tennessee Supreme Court] Justice Martha Craig Daughtrey said, “He has spent literally hundreds of hours working with our advisory committees on the Civil Rules, the Criminal Rules and the Tennessee Rules of Evidence. And he has donated a substantial amount of staff time to these committees. … The procedural law of Tennessee simply would not exist in its current form without Don’s pro bono efforts.”

The case that stands out the most to Paine involved trying to get custody for the mother of a girl who was deaf. His client, the girl’s mother, was also hearing-impaired. The girl had been taken away to Chicago years earlier when Paine became involved.

“I tried to handle it administratively at first,” he says. He thought it was all worked out at one point and the daughter was supposed to be on a plane from Chicago before Christmas. But then he got a telephone call he says he never will forget — everything had fallen through.

“I had to go tell [my client] right before Christmas that her daughter wasn’t coming home.

Paine said he felt like telling the people in Chicago: “I think you picked on the wrong country boy this time,” and immediately started looking for a co-counsel who was licensed in Illinois, since Paine was not. He called a Chicago lawyer he barely knew who said he’d be glad to help, even though Paine advised him that “there’s no money in it.”

During the course of the custody battle, Paine went to court in Chicago two or three times and “had a big, knock-down, drag-out trial.” …

They won the case and the woman got her daughter back. When he went to the phone to call his assistant Karen Roberts to tell her the outcome, he says he started crying.

“That’s the only time I ever cried [over a case]. I wanted to win so badly.”

By Suzanne Craig Robertson, excerpted from the July/August 1992 Tennessee Bar Journal.