Tennessee Bar Association Public Service Awards
Each year the Tennessee Bar Association recognizes outstanding service by attorneys and law students who have dedicated their time to helping 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 ELIZABETH “LIBBY” SYKES. 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.
Libby Sykes wakes up early, skips the coffee (the attorney claims she has never desired a cup) and then reaches for her phone: “It’s Libby from the Legal Services Hotline. What can we do for you?”
Sykes, 58, began volunteering with the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services’ legal helpline in January 2014, less than a month after she retired from leading the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts in Nashville. It was during her seven years at the AOC that Sykes became acquainted with numerous referral programs available to Tennesseans in need of legal help.
“Looking back at her work history, it’s clear that public service has been at the core of her career,” says Tim Hughes, who is HELP4TN program manager. “We were thrilled, but not surprised when she told us she wanted to dedicate time for providing legal help during her retirement.”
When describing retirement, Sykes rattles off the typical mantra: “It gives you the time to do the things you want to do.” But volunteering her time with 844-HELP4TN, a free legal helpline that offers advice and referrals to low-income callers, was exactly the thing that Sykes had been looking forward to.
Sykes admits that she was nervous to offer legal advice because she felt out of practice. When she began volunteering two years ago, she initially only listened to voicemails from people seeking legal assistance and forwarded her paperwork to Hughes. But it did not take long for Hughes to gently nudge Sykes to offer her expertise.
“For two years now, Libby has been a compassionate voice at the other end of the line, helping people understand their rights and letting them know what type of help is available for their specific situation,” Hughes says.
Compassion has been a motivator for Sykes throughout her entire legal career. She grew up in rural Montgomery County, lost her dad at a young age, and decided in high school that she wanted to do something no one else in her family had done: become an attorney.
“You just realize there are so many unmet legal needs out there and (my childhood) helped me decide to go to law school,” Sykes says.
She credits her mom’s support for helping her graduate from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville. She earned her law degree in 1982 from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Following a few years of private practice in Clarksville, Sykes began a 27-year career in state government. She was appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in 1999. The court named her administrative director in 2006. During her time with the AOC, Sykes volunteered in legal clinics hosted by the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.
“Libby did a fantastic job leading the AOC for seven years,” Ann Pruitt, executive director for the Tennessee Alliance of Legal Services (TALS), says. “During her tenure, the AOC began funding and administering multiple programs geared toward meeting the needs of disadvantaged Tennesseans facing legal problems, including the helpline.”
Hughes adds, "With her breadth of knowledge of the legal system in Tennessee, Libby was the perfect person to take on a pro bono role with the helpline, expanding our capacity significantly and delivering caring and quality advice and referrals to everyone she encounters.”
Sykes’s efforts have helped increase the number of clients the helpline has been able to help. A recent Legal Needs Assessment found that more than 60 percent of low income households face at least one civil legal problem annually. In the second quarter of 2014 after Sykes began volunteering, the helpline closed 895 calls, exceeding the preceding quarter’s average of 716.
“Over the past two years she has talked to more than 700 helpline callers, triaging their legal issue, providing basic advice and referring them to additional resources where appropriate,” Pruitt says. “Libby speaks with people in the midst of a crisis — people going through divorce and child custody cases, dealing with the potential loss of their housing through eviction and debt problems. She empowers callers by giving them a newfound understanding of their rights and support in taking the next steps to assert those rights.”
Sykes, who currently volunteers six to 10 hours a week with the helpline, says acknowledging the need is the greatest motivator for her work. “I could fill my day by doing it. There’s a need and I’m happy I can help.”
And while retirement has given Sykes more time to travel with husband Tommy Murphy, she said one “perk” of the helpline is that she can answer calls from almost anywhere. “I’ve made calls from everywhere I’ve been, unless I’ve been out of the country.”
After offering legal advice, Sykes’s morning shifts to another volunteering effort: the local food pantry in Clarksville, where she helps organize volunteers.
“Libby believes in giving back and has a deep desire to help people living in poverty,” Hughes says.
Sykes has no plans for slowing down anytime soon, but notes that life is all about a “balance” between family, friends and work. Part of her balance includes spending time with her mother, who resides in Clarksville.
While she trusts the future of the helpline to Hughes and Pruitt, she notes, “the phone rings constantly” and hopes more volunteers will join the staff.
“There are people who call in that can’t get in, so there is still a significant unmet need,” she says. She also hopes funding will be one day acquired to add more pro bono attorneys to Legal Aid’s staff.
“With Libby’s help, we are ready to build a pool of trained pro bono attorneys serving helpline callers,” Hughes says. “This wouldn’t have been possible without Libby’s service.”
— Amelia Ferrell Knisely
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 DAVE YODER of Legal Aid of East Tennessee.
Divorce and domestic violence are not new concepts; they’ve existed since the dawn of time. But not so long ago, these were still topics that were deemed inappropriate for public discourse and for public concern. This was especially true in rural communities across America and stayed that way well into the 1970s and 1980s. It was believed by many in these communities that families should handle their problems behind closed doors, and consulting legal help was out of the question.
Enter David Yoder. In the 1970s, he was not long out of law school, working for Legal Services of Eastern Michigan on domestic violence cases. Yoder found himself deeply frustrated with the vast dearth of resources available to the victims he often represented.
“There was also just a general lack of awareness and knowledge in the community,” Yoder says of the time.
“Back in the ’70s, it was pioneering legal work,” says Debra House, who is associate director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee. “Domestic violence was behind closed doors, it didn’t get much media attention and it was much more common to blame the victim.”
This kind of legal aid is still difficult for attorneys today, but it was an exceptionally challenging at the time. In one case, Yoder believed he was doing everything in his power to do good legal work, representing a woman getting a divorce. But instead of accolades, he received a very angry call from the woman’s mother.
“She said ‘How are my grandbabies going to survive?’ and ‘I took it for 30 years, who does she think she is?’” Yoder recalls.
The phone call was a defining moment for him.
“That said to me that the one person in the world who was supposed to be in her corner was unable to do that for all sorts of reasons,” he says. It spurred him to take action and eventually he was a part of the creation of the Michigan Domestic Violence and Treatment Board.
Yoder helped put domestic violence issues in the forefront, House says.
During these early years, Yoder helped develop the concept of coordinated community response to domestic violence. He authored a paper on the subject for the Department of Justice in 1978. Years later, that paper would be an instrumental piece in building his work in East Tennessee, as it brought him to his future home of Knoxville for the first time.
“I came down to present my paper,” Yoder recalls. “I had an absolutely delightful experience (in Knoxville), and talked to someone about how great East Tennessee was.”
Yoder thought it would be a great place to retire, but then in the early ’90s, he found himself being asked to move there to work for Legal Aid of East Tennessee. He was tasked with applying to bring federal funding to Knoxville to support a new initiative under President George H. W. Bush.
“It required Knoxville to create what some call a ‘one stop shop’ for victim’s services,” Yoder says. “When I sent the application in, I simply attached that 1978 paper to the back of that application.”
More than 400 cities applied for the funding and Knoxville was one of only a handful that was chosen. The money was used to create the Knoxville Family Justice Center.
“It is one place domestic violence victims can go to access the full range of legal services,” House says. “Before the Family Justice Center, a victim might have to go to four or five places to get the help needed.”
Today, the Knoxville Family Justice Center’s motto is “One call to make, one place to go.”
“It’s been incredibly successful, due mostly to the staff that we have,” Yoder says of the Center. But House also credits the Center’s success on Yoder’s unique ability to think outside the box, especially in terms of fundraising and establishing partnerships. He built a strong relationship with the Haslam family and counts Pilot Corporation as a major supporter of Legal Aid of East Tennessee.
Gov. Bill Haslam, formerly the mayor of Knoxville, was such a fan of the work done at the Knoxville Family Justice Center that he has worked to spread the concept to cities across the state. Memphis was the next city to create one, and later Nashville, Cookeville and Chattanooga all received funding to follow suit. Yoder currently chairs the statewide initiative committee of the Knoxville Family Justice Center, which provides support to all of the newly emerging centers across the state. He said that a Tri-Cities location is in the pipeline.
Another of his “outside the box” approaches to funding has been through his hobby of solo competition auto racing, also known as autocross. Long an interest of his, Yoder says that several years ago, it dawned on him that he could put these two passions together.
“With the club having trouble finding new spaces and Legal Aid of East Tennessee always trying to find more money,” he says, “I thought I could combine two of my loves.”
He reached out to other nonprofits and charities, such as the one run by Bristol Motor Speedway, to plan benefits. The benefits raise both money and awareness for Legal Aid of East Tennessee, as well as create publicity, which has even led them to more clients in need of help.
Yoder also spearheaded an effort to open one of the first Medical Legal Partnerships in Tennessee in 2012 and he has continued to fight for more MLPs throughout the state. He’s active in the Tennessee Bar Association Access to Justice Committee’s MLP Working Group, which recently worked with the TBA’s House of Delegates and Board of Governors to pass a resolution in support of MLPs.
After 22 years of serving as the executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Yoder is stepping down this year. However, while he is certainly looking forward to having more free time to play with his cars, it’s only a semi-retirement, he admits.
“I want to stay involved,” Yoder, now 70, says. “I want to advocate for equal justice.”
He added that without the limitations of representing a publicly funded institution, he expects that he can do even more good work, advocating for Tennesseans in need.
“The biggest reason that I became so involved was because of the clients I represented,” he said. “I felt honored to be trusted by the victims.”
Yoder tells the story about a woman he represented in a divorce case in the 1970s who called him more than 30 years later. She said she just wanted to let him know that her life had been fantastic since then. She wanted to say thank you.
“To see success and see lives changed, not only for them but for their children, and to break the cycle of violence,” Yoder says, “it’s been very rewarding.”
— Katharine Hereges
Law Student Volunteer of the Year
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 honoree is SARA PAGE, a 2015 graduate of the Belmont University College of Law.
Sara Page admits that her history of volunteer work in law school began somewhat involuntarily. The Belmont Legal Aid Society was looking for 1L representatives and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“The Board kind of confronted me in the hallway and said ‘You’re going to be a 1L rep for Legal Aid,’” Page recalls. “And that’s how I got involved,” she laughs. “Forcefully, but then very willingly after.”
Once she learned about the benefits of pro bono work for herself and her community, Page knew she’d found a passion worth pursuing.
Through the Belmont Legal Aid Society, where she took over as president in 2014, Page became involved with Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), the Magdalene Clinic, the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) and the Sophia’s Heart Clinic. She also worked to pair the pro bono initiatives of Waller Lansden attorneys with Belmont Law students and became a peer mentor to her fellow Belmont underclassmen.
Especially noteworthy was Page’s work with JFON during the 2014-2015 year. Page helped create a collaborative clinical endeavor that partnered the Belmont Legal Aid Society with JFON to create an alternative spring break. The clinic assisted victims of crime who sought U Visas and helped other people with their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications. Ten Belmont Law students, including Page, used their spring breaks to work on these applications. Ultimately, 21 people were helped through this program that would not have been possible without Page.
Working with TALS that same year, Page rallied to bring an OnlineTNJustice Virtual Legal Advice Clinic to Belmont Law. She presented the idea to Belmont faculty where it was approved. Through this clinic, groups of law students worked with volunteer attorneys to answer legal questions from low-income Tennesseans utilizing the OTJ website.
In addition to volunteering her time to numerous pro bono organizations, Page also worked hard to recruit new volunteers and to ensure that previous volunteers kept coming back. Page was successful in this endeavor as evidenced by a rise in pro bono involvement on Belmont’s campus, the retention of past JFON volunteers and the results of the OTJ Virtual Legal Advice Clinic post-event survey.
Samantha Sanchez, director of training, compliance and technology at TALS, believes it was Page’s enthusiasm that made volunteers want to come back. In her nomination letter of Page, Sanchez writes that Page was “the biggest cheerleader” for the Virtual Legal Advice Clinic and, after it was approved by Belmont faculty, “Sara promoted the activity through Belmont’s Legal Aid Society, attended the pre-event CLE and encouraged attendance of her fellow law students. 100% of those who took the post-event survey said they would attend another event and no-doubt, it was in part due to Sara’s infectious excitement about helping low-income Tennesseans through the clinic’s use of OnlineTNJustice.”
“Sara repeatedly demonstrated dedication to helping TALS further our mission of strengthening the delivery of civil legal support to vulnerable Tennesseans. Her passion for assisting those in need is contagious and we hope future law students will catch it,” Sanchez says.
Belmont Law Professor and Legal Aid Faculty Advisor, Professor Jeffrey Usman, who nominated Page for this award, credits her leadership for the increased pro bono involvements. He wrote that the “students who participated in the alternative spring break program are now regular participants, as a consequence of Sara’s leadership, in JFON’s regular Saturday clinics. In fact, she has inspired such dedication to participating in the Saturday clinics that it has become necessary to schedule when Belmont students would be helping so that there are not too many Saturday clinic volunteers.” He goes on to say that “Sara meets other students where they are. She finds ways to get students who might not otherwise engage in pro bono hooked.”
When asked to describe Page’s level of commitment to volunteer work, Usman wrote, “Sara always seemed to still find the time and energy to serve others. Where others would have rested, she would push on. I simply do not know how she found the time or energy to do so, but I do know that there are many people who would not have otherwise had the help that was received in this community who are better for the tireless efforts of Sara Page.”
Usman also spoke of Page’s character saying, “Sara is a remarkably unassuming student. She offers credit to others that belongs rightfully to her. In ways big (like an enormous amount of effort in creating a new alternative spring break and Saturday clinic partnership with JFON) to small (helping with every and any small task connected with TALS’ annual Equal Justice University), she has been a workhorse in the service of student pro bono involvement. She has done so with little acclaim and great modesty.”
Now 26, Page graduated cum laude from Belmont Law in May 2015 with an exemplary academic record. She was a semi-finalist in the American Association for Justice Student Trial Advocacy Competition, earned Best Performance Awards in numerous classes and made Dean’s List each semester.
Page was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in October. She currently works as a law clerk for the Administrative Procedures Division of the Tennessee Secretary of State. Looking back, she says the tedium of law school made her consider quitting, but it was the volunteer work that kept her around.
“The reason I stayed in law school was pro bono work. I really don’t think I would have finished had it not been for pro bono work,” she recalls. And, now that she’s a licensed attorney, she has no plans to give that work up anytime soon.
“I am trying to stay as active as I can,” she says. “I will be taking on a client with the Magdalene clinic, I am attending JFON Saturday DACA clinics and I recently signed on to
OnlineTNJustice to start answering pro bono questions.”
She hopes more attorneys get involved with pro bono work. To her, the reasoning is simple: “Members of the communities we serve cannot protect themselves or get the benefits they deserve because of a number of barriers-- empowerment, finances and knowledge barriers mainly. An attorney can take just a few hours of their time to remove those barriers and dramatically improve that client’s life. In my mind, that is how you repay society for the privilege of being an attorney.”
— Kate Prince