Posted by: Suzanne Craig Robertson, Kate Prince & Barry Kolar on Mar 1, 2021

Journal Issue Date: March/April 2021

Journal Name: Vol. 57 No. 2

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 Chattanooga attorney Richard B. Gossett. The award recognizes private attorneys who have contributed a significant amount 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.

Richard B. Gossett

Richard B. Gossett was surprised to learn he had logged more hours helping clients on TN Free Legal Answers this year than any other volunteer, and for that he’d been nominated and won the TBA’s Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year award.

“I never see how much time I spend,” he says of the many hours he has devoted to doing pro bono. “I get wrapped up in it. It consumes me sometimes.” In fact, he says, his wife has had to remind him to stop if it gets too late at the end of the day and he is still answering questions for people in need.

Gossett doesn’t keep up with his hours, but Kirsten Jacobson, who nominated him for the prestigious award, does. TN Free Legal Answers is an innovative online question-and-answer legal clinic that enables low-income individuals to access legal advice from pro bono attorneys without the constraints of meeting in person. (Check it out at TN.FreeLegalAnswers.org.) The site is part of a national pro bono program of the American Bar Association. Jacobson is a lawyer with the Tennessee Alliance of Legal Services (TALS), which provides administrative support for the Tennessee-specific site. The ABA Free Legal Answers website, which originated in Tennessee a decade ago, has been licensed as a free service for low-income clients in 43 states. 

“To date, Richard has answered 2,238 questions on TN Free Legal Answers,” she says. “This represents over 10% of all questions asked on the site.” And near the end of last year, he had answered 51.8% of the questions answered by attorneys for the year (1,070 questions out of 2,064 questions). “To put this in context, TN Free Legal Answers had 874 registered volunteer attorneys on the site as of Dec. 11, 2020. Richard is 1 of 874, yet he has answered a majority of the questions,” she says.

“As you likely can imagine, the current pandemic and limitations on in-person pro bono have made the online platform more necessary than ever,” Jacobson says. TN Free Legal Answers reached two important milestones in 2020. In March, the national Free Legal Answers program recorded the 100,000th question answered. On Dec. 1, Tennessee recorded the 20,000th question answered.

Gossett has helped more people than any other volunteer on Tennessee’s site. “With a strong volunteer base of more than 800 people, this is a testament to Richard’s commitment to access to legal care, to his willingness to provide pro bono help in any type of civil case, and to his full support of this important virtual platform,” Jacobson says. She adds that he is an “exceptional” and “consistent volunteer, logging in multiple times per week to review and answer legal questions posted to the site. He needs no asking or reminders. Quite simply, Richard makes my job as site administrator much easier, because he is trustworthy, reliable and resourceful.”

It’s been a great fit. “During the pandemic it’s been particularly good,” Gossett says, “because most of us are working from home. It’s online, so we don’t have to go face-to-face. It’s difficult sometimes, but this format lends itself to helping underserved populations.”

When he began practice, right out of the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1965, he says he did pro bono work but soon found he didn’t have the time. But, he says, “As I get older and start winding down in private practice,” he realizes that there are a lot of people who need help. So, he began volunteering again in 2015, when a member of his firm asked for volunteers to prepare petitions on behalf of inmates in federal prisons serving, often life sentences for relatively minor drug charges.

“We have a very active pro bono effort at the firm,” he says of Baker Donelson, where he is of counsel in the Chattanooga office. He gives credit to his colleague and partner Buck Lewis, who practices in Baker’s Memphis office. “He has really been instrumental in getting this effort off the ground. We’re following his lead. He is a shining star.” Lewis and Baker Donelson helped develop the predecessor to TN Free Legal Answers (Online TN Justice).

Gossett, Jacobson says, “is a true team player: a steady and trustworthy volunteer who offers high-quality legal advice and referrals to Tennesseans seeking help regardless of the type of legal issue or the busy time of year. I know that our clients are in good hands when Richard chooses to respond to their question.”

Gossett does this heroic work quietly, preferring to keep a low profile.

“I feel obligated to do it,” he says. “I’m trying to pay back a little bit to the profession.” At 79, he is still doing client work, mostly in the areas of banking and business reorganizations. This, it should be noted, couldn’t be less related to his pro bono efforts. Up until the pandemic began, he mostly answered questions about domestic and family matters. “It’s trended in 2020 toward employment, loss of jobs, loss of places to live, lease terminations, evictions, unemployment benefits,” he says. “Family-related matters, like custody, is still part of it, though.”

Gossett usually keeps open the maximum allowed number of matters, 10, at a time on the site, looking for the questions that have been pending the longest. “For example,” he says, at any time there may be “four or five questions that have been pending for two weeks. I’ll address those first. I try my best to provide an answer.”

In areas where he is least familiar, he spends time researching. “I keep a record of everything I’ve ever put as an answer on the site. I can go back through previous research, which saves time.” But, he adds, “You have to do some fairly in-depth research that takes some time, particularly these areas I’m not familiar with.”

Gossett points out that using TN Free Legal Answers makes it easier to squeeze in pro bono work, and offers this advice for those wanting to help but feel they don’t have time: “At some point in each day try to carve out a window of time at your desk, go online, and see if there is an answer you can provide. There is someone who needs it. It will be rewarding for you, not monetarily but professionally.” He says, “The payment is that once in a while they’ll send a message back, saying ‘Thank you, I appreciate what you did.’”

“That makes it worthwhile,” he says. 

— Suzanne Craig Robertson

 

Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year

The Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year 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 Kaitlin Beck of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

Kaitlin Beck

Before she was a lawyer, Kaitlin Beck was an actress. Her first role was that of the vengeful perjurer Abigail Williams in her high school’s production of The Crucible, a part she now finds ironic, considering her line of work. “False accusations are a real thing!” says Beck, who is an assistant public defender at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

Her love of acting is so strong, Beck nearly abandoned the traditional high-school-to-college pipeline to pursue the stage. Realizing she did not want to end up a penniless artist, Beck applied to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), confessing she listed pre-law as her major on the application because it sounded good.

While at MTSU, Beck found an outlet through which she could put her acting skills to work — the university’s Mock Trial team, where she was promised she could act out the role of the witness, but eventually assumed the role of lawyer.

“I … thought that probably what community theater said about me was that I had skills of improvisation and extemporaneous speaking and had a good public speaking ability,” she says.

“Those were my inborn talents that drew me to community theater, but I could also maybe make an important social impact by leveraging those talents in the legal profession instead of on a stage.”

Mock Trial made Beck realize that, more than anything, she wanted to be in the courtroom.

After graduating from MTSU, Beck landed in Memphis and began work as a victim witness coordinator for the District Attorney’s Office. She used that time to apply to law schools, ultimately choosing the prestigious University of Chicago Law School.

Slowly, Beck’s dream of being in the courtroom was “overtaken by the sociological importance of defending the most vulnerable citizens of Tennessee.” And by mid-law school, her dream had evolved into a profession she knew could encompass both interests: a public defender.

“I’m just lucky that my interests aligned with such a noble profession that I secondarily recognized but have since been lit with the fire of as well,” she says.

Beck worked for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia while still at the University of Chicago and, after graduation, began a clerkship with U.S. District Court Judge for the Western District of Tennessee Sheryl Lipman. By the end of her clerkship, two job offers led her to a crossroads: return to Chicago to work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or remain in Memphis and become an assistant public defender.

“I see those two jobs as very distinct and opposites of one another,” Beck says. She describes the ACLU as “impact litigation,” involving only a few clients, with the goal of attacking systemic issues. The Public Defender’s Office on the other hand, she describes as “direct services,” with a large number of clients and diminished ability to focus on systemic issues, “simply because your mental resources are being so exhausted by making sure individual clients have everything they need.”

And, in 2018, Beck became a public defender.

“My day-to-day focus is on the individual client and making sure they have the most robust defense that is possible, that they understand their options, that they feel like they have autonomy over their cases, that they’re the primary decision maker, that they feel like they’ve been heard and that they have a serious legal professional who is on their side and working toward their goals,” she says.

Beck’s journey from actress to attorney comes full circle when she begins to explain her approach to defending a client.

“I’m not acting in court, I’m being certainly very sincere, but it is kind of a whole production, isn’t it?” she says, noting the significant role that storytelling plays in defending a client.

“One of the reasons our most vulnerable citizens have such poor dispositions of their cases sometimes is that we can’t fathom what it would be like to be in their position,” she explains. “It’s really important day-in-and-day-out work for a public defender to humanize their client and slow down and tell a story about them.”

This sentiment is echoed by Gideon’s Promise, a nonprofit public defender organization that provides intensive indigent defense training. In 2019, Beck spent more than two weeks completing one of its rigorous programs and hopes to go back for more soon.

“Their emphasis is so heavily on storytelling and I believe in that facet of it and I think it’s really key.”

Beck continues to fight to tell those stories, even in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve never stopped going to court because, as much as we ask, the sheriff’s office and police department won’t stop arresting people,” she says jokingly.

Her tone becomes more serious when she begins to describe how she now finds herself on the frontlines of a pandemic.

“Every day I’m talking with people who have been in jail custody and, through no fault of their own, those people who have been in jail custody are also in an environment that is going to make it very likely that they contract COVID-19,” she says.

“Courts shut down in March [2020] and I came in the next day and stood six feet away from someone who had been in jail custody at least overnight if not for several days. And I have spoken on the order of hundreds of people in jail custody four out of five days a week for the past 10 months,” she says. The Tennessee Department of Health in December 2020 released updated guidelines to the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, which included three phases of populations prioritized to receive the vaccine first. Lawyers were not included on that list.

“Public defenders not being on the [vaccination] list is concerning.”

Outside of work, 30-year-old Beck enjoys baking and is an avid runner who participates in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. She had to run the marathon virtually in 2020, but still managed to raise $1,100 for the charity.

Beck is also known to donate her old books to jail inmates. After corresponding with a former client who mentioned his love of the books in the jail, Beck worked with jail staff to make sure he had access to new books, even sending him some of her own.

“It seems to mean a lot to him,” she says.

From her days as playing Abigail Williams, to acting as a witness in a trial advocacy exercise, to tirelessly telling the stories of her clients, it’s clear that Kaitlin Beck steals the show.

“Maybe they’re not so different, acting and lawyering.” Laughing, she says, “All the courtroom’s a stage, right?”

— Kate Prince

 

Law Student Volunteer of the Year

The Law Student Volunteer of the Year recognizes a Tennessee law student who provides outstanding volunteer services while working with an organization that provides legal representation to the indigent. This year’s honoree is Gerald Bradner, a second-year student at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law of the University of Memphis.

Gerald Bradner

Gerald Bradner has always been ready to serve, so it was no surprise that when professor Daniel Schaffzin asked for volunteers to help meet the heavy demands confronting the Eviction Settlement Program in Memphis, Bradner stepped forward.

During the next few months, he took on dozens of cases working under the supervision of a mentor, reviewing paperwork, meeting with tenants and landlords, and negotiating settlements. His work prevented many Shelby County residents from becoming homeless.

“During my career … I have never met a law student like Gerald,” Monique Beals, an attorney who works with the program says of Bradner. “His eagerness to help, his willingness to take the initiative, his refusal to take no for an answer to benefit his clients and his communication skills are unparalleled even by the standards of practicing attorneys.”

This wasn’t the first time the 34-year-old 2L had stepped up to serve. As a recent high school graduate in rural Gladys, Virginia, he enlisted in the Army and after basic training was sent to Ramadi, Iraq, then a focal point of Al-Qaeda insurgency. During his 15-month deployment, he showed promise as a leader and was accepted into the Army’s Green to Gold officer training program. That took him to James Madison University, where he earned a degree in justice studies and pre-law studies before being commissioned as an intelligence officer and being deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. During that era, it was known as the assassination city of Afghanistan because of the large number of target killings taking place there.

“When I first started service in the Army, it felt like what I was doing really mattered,” Bradner says of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his later service back in the states doing staff work led him to consider a second career.

“I wanted to pursue a career that I would consider as honorable and noble as I had considered serving in the Army,” Bradner says. That led him to the law, enrollment at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and, eventually, his work with the Eviction Settlement Program.

The program was launched last summer by lawyers, judges and government officials in Memphis and Shelby County to help both tenants and landlords who had been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is managed by Neighborhood Preservation Inc., with the cooperation of Memphis Area Legal Services, and the law school’s Clinical Program, which is providing faculty, staff, and students to work on cases and assist volunteer attorneys in completing the program’s work.

“We came up with the idea of trying to negotiate with landlords, making it more of a legal representation project that had the backing of a fund created by the city and county,” Memphis attorney Webb Brewer said in an earlier interview with the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). “Because landlords are hurting too from this and part of our belief was that a tenant in hand, especially if they had been a reasonably good tenant before this crisis, was better than the unknown, which might be not being able to rent the place.”

Memphis attorney Steve Barlow, the president and co-founder of Neighborhood Preservation Inc., joined Brewer in developing the program that uses CARES Act money to provide relief to those in crisis. Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court Judge Betty Thomas Moore, who presides over many eviction cases in her courtroom, has also been deeply involved. Many of the people she sees in court facing eviction are “just everyday working people” who suddenly find themselves in a precarious financial situation, she told the AOC.

“They never thought it would happen to them. They’ve got a pile of bills that have to be paid. They may have four or five children and don’t have any other place to go.”

That’s the kind of case that stands out in Bradner’s memory from his work in the program.

“One client was a CNA (certified nursing assistant) working in a COVID ward with three children,” Bradner says. “She was so happy when she found out she had someone in her corner that she dissolved into tears.”

In that case, Bradner discovered that there were close to 30 tenants at the same complex facing eviction. He remembered that Barlow had recently piloted a bulk settlement concept in a similar situation, so he went to him to see if it might work in this case. After getting the green light, he developed a proposal, met with the tenants and successfully negotiated a deal with the landlord and his counsel, keeping most of the tenants from being evicted.

Bradner found it satisfying to reach the settlement in that case and others, and found “amazing” the amount of support and guidance he received from Beals and the law school’s Clinical Program and faculty, especially Schaffzin and Barlow. He also notes the strong support he received from the Memphis firm of Godwin, Morris, Laurenzi & Bloomfield, where he is working as a law clerk.

“If I can do something like that every year of my career, then I’ll have a very long and satisfying career,” he says. 

— Barry Kolar

Suzanne Craig Robertson, Kate Prince and Barry Kolar are part the TBA’s Communications Team.