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. This year, a special Access to Justice Champion Award is presented to Allan F. Ramsaur in acknowledgement of his accomplishments as a bar leader as well as a leader in the access to justice community. Watch for a Tennessee Bar Journal interview with him coming this spring.
Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year
This year’s Harris Gilbert award is presented to Nashville attorney DANIEL HORWITZ. 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.
It’s hard to not be impressed with Daniel Horwitz.
Every year, the Tennessee Bar Association honors members of the legal community who have led impressive careers, but even among that noteworthy cohort, Horwitz stands out.
His cases have been written about in Slate, Forbes and USA Today, to name a few. He’s been published and cited in a number of legal publications. He’s had cases in front of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Runs a successful legal blog. Has clocked in thousands and thousands of hours of pro bono service.
And he hasn’t even turned 35.
Horwitz came to Tennessee to attend Vanderbilt Law, of which he is a 2013 graduate. A Los Angeles native and undergrad alum of Cornell University, he calls himself the “black sheep” of a family of scientists and doctors for choosing a legal career.
Black sheep? It’s a little tough to believe.
Everything about Horwitz is improbable though — not the least of which being his penchant for taking on seemingly impossible pro bono civil rights cases and winning.
In a particularly high-profile example that took place this year, Horwitz represented Maximiliano Gabriel Gluzman, an Argentine native and Vanderbilt Law graduate who was stopped from sitting for the Tennessee Bar exam by the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners. Despite finishing Vanderbilt’s LL.M. program with a 3.9 GPA, Gluzman was denied the chance to take the Bar in Tennessee because of his previous Argentinean legal education. Married to an American woman from Memphis, relocation outside of Tennessee would have been difficult and he had few options available to him.
Gluzman guesses that Horwitz dedicated more than 200 hours to the case.
“I knew if anyone was going to go to the mat for Maxi, it would be Daniel,” said David Hudson, a friend and former professor of Horwitz’s who first connected him to Gluzman.
Horwitz didn’t just represent Gluzman, whose case ended up in front of the Tennessee Supreme Court. He used every tool in the toolbox to turn a legal matter into a full-blown movement.
Horwitz pressed for media coverage, which he received from local and national outlets. The University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University were recruited to jump on board as well, filing briefs in support of Gluzman. Although Horwitz once served as Election Counsel for the Tennessee Democratic Party, he petitioned national conservative groups to support Gluzman’s endeavor. The Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute all submitted amici curiae briefs on Gluzman’s behalf.
Hudson called Horwitz’s effort “Herculean.” For Gluzman, it was life changing.
With the Supreme Court ruling in his favor, Gluzman will be allowed to sit for the February 2018 Bar exam. Aside from doing right by his client, the implications of this case will be felt for years to come. The Tennessee Supreme Court is currently reviewing changes to Rule 7 of the Rules of the Supreme Court, the section that covers Bar admission.
To hear Horwitz describe the case, it seems like it’s “all in a day’s work.” But a day’s work for the average young lawyer doesn’t always include nationally significant cases, does it?
The majority of his pro bono work, however, doesn’t receive gavel-to-gavel coverage.
“He routinely helps indigent people expunge their criminal records free of charge, assists the poor with landlord-tenant disputes, and represents crime victims who have nowhere else to turn for help to secure their safety,” said attorney Joy Kimbrough, who has worked with Horwitz. “Few are aware of this work, because (he) doesn’t talk about it.”
Like the case of Amy McDowell (not her real name), a woman Horwitz represented in a case of stalking and harassment. In 2016, McDowell had recently moved to Nashville and had been receiving incessant calls and voicemails from a man threatening to set her on fire. She went to the police with the information, but after they were unable to trace the calls, they said that there was little they could do unless violence had actually been committed.
Horwitz took on her case with dogged commitment.
“Soon, (he) had both a private investigator and the District Attorney private investigator working on the case,” McDowell said. “Within two months, we successfully had a correct ID on the perpetrator, something even the police thought was nearly impossible.”
The man was arrested and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, but that wasn’t enough for Horwitz.
“(He) did not end the case with the first arrest, but continued to fight on my behalf to pursue felony charges,” McDowell said. The man who tormented McDowell is currently serving time in jail thanks to Horwitz.
McDowell said Horwitz clocked more than 55 pro bono hours on her case over 19 months.
Listening to friends talk about Horwitz is a nonstop list of his audacious achievements:
What about the time he got a Nashville man’s 1995 sodomy conviction expunged using a writ of audita querela, which hadn’t been seen in a Tennessee court in a century?
What about his case against the White County judge who offered time off of jail sentences for inmates who agreed to undergo birth control procedures?
What about his work serving on the YWCA board?
What about his legislative lobbying efforts on behalf of indigent litigants?
Simply put, Horwitz doesn’t stop.
“He’s not only brilliant, he’s got an indefatigable work ethic,” Hudson said. “And a strong sense of justice.”
Hudson described befriending him while they co-clerked for Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee: “Sometimes he would work until 10 p.m. at night. I was long gone by then.”
Horwitz said he makes civil rights and pro bono work a priority in his life and practice, but also notes that he has the time because he works for himself.
“I’ve never worked for a corporate law firm,” he said. “I know some people (at corporate firms) are able to do a significant amount of civil rights-related pro bono work, but I know a lot of them can’t. I’ve never had to deal with those kinds of barriers.”
He points out that for many new law graduates who want to take part in impactful civil rights work, the cost of student loans — and the pressing need to make payments on time — in many ways make it impossible. New lawyers find themselves having to take the job that pays best, rather that the position that will lead to the most significant career.
“It’s a huge problem,” Horwitz said.
It’s one that needs to be addressed, because the legal profession is in need of attorneys who are ready to change the justice system.
“I think it’s really important for lawyers to represent unpopular clients who have important causes,” Horwitz said. Like a current client, who’s serving three consecutive lifetime sentences for a crime he committed when he was 14. “Nobody wants to go near those cases — they are devastating to everyone who has any connection to them. But we’re talking about kids here. The U.S. Supreme Court has held repeatedly that kids are different.”
Horwitz said it’s great when those types of cases get public attention.
“But it’s easy to forget that those cases aren’t rare,” he added. “Lots of people have devastating stories that don’t get any kind of attention or garner any sympathy. It would be nice if we gave more than lip service to all of them.”
— Katharine Heriges
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 MARY GILLUM, Director of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands Tennessee Taxpayer Project.
When the sun and moon moved into perfect alignment over Tennessee this past summer, it created a once-in-a-lifetime event that touched the lives of millions.
For Mary Gillum, such a moment took place almost 20 years ago when she was nearing the end of her law school education. And while at the time the unexpected coming together of events in East Tennessee didn’t draw the throngs of visitors who put on special glasses to view the total eclipse of the sun, it has touched the lives of thousands of Tennesseans and made their lives better. Thanks largely to the efforts of Gillum, the creation in 2000 and the subsequent growth of the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic has now generated almost $30 million in tax refunds, property releases and debt resolution for some 5,000 clients in Tennessee’s 95 counties.
The unlikely events leading up to this project came from several directions. First there was Gillum, a Campbell County native who entered law school with an odd mix of interests — a keen desire to work with the tax code following six years of work experience at a CPA firm, and a passion for public service developed through her upbringing in one of the poorest regions of the country — and her after-hours work as a teacher in a welfare-to-work program for low income women.
“I went to law school following the transactional track,” Gillum said. “And while I was passionate about public interest law, I didn’t see a path for it to fit with my interest in tax law. I thought my options would be limited to working in a firm focusing on transactional work and tax planning, or working with legal aid on traditional poverty law issues. I didn’t see a way to merge the two interests.”
What the University of Tennessee College of Law student didn’t know was that Congress had just passed a new tax reform act to provide due process tools for consumers who wanted to challenge IRS rulings. A part of that reform included funding for low-income taxpayer clinics so that people who could not afford an attorney could still be able to challenge IRS rulings.
Luckily, law professor and later dean Doug Blaze did know about this new program and also knew about Gillum’s interests in legal aid and tax law. He brought her to Neil McBride, who had seen how income tax issues were creating big problems for his clients at the Legal Aid Society office in Oak Ridge and was excited about sponsoring a clinic. Together, they applied for and won a program grant.
One more piece was still needed for this unlikely puzzle to come together — matching funds. And that came soon after, when Gillum was notified that she had also been awarded a two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship to do public service law. It carried with it a $50,000 stipend — enough money to finish meeting the needed match. So, with grant and fellowship funding and support form Legal Aid all in place, Gillum launched the clinic while still in her last year of law school. By the time she graduated in May 2000, she already had a caseload.
Since that time the program has grown steadily to cover all of Tennessee’s counties, add dozens of pro bono lawyers and accountants, build tax law expertise at legal aid offices across the state and score precedent-setting court decisions that are benefitting low-income taxpayers across the nation. Here are just a few of Gillum’s accomplishments:
- Formed partnerships with legal aid programs across the state and developed tax law training for attorneys in those organizations.
- Consulted with Memphis Area Legal Services and University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law as they developed an independent Low Income Taxpayer Clinic to serve Memphis and surrounding counties.
- Strengthened ties to UT College of Law so that one or two students each semester or up to four students a year work with the program. Several have gone on to work with the IRS, Gillum notes, bringing first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by low-income taxpayers to that federal agency.
- Recruited a team of 81 attorneys and accountants across the state of Tennessee to take on pro bono cases.
- Recruited retired IRS attorney Robert Nadler to lead the taxpayer clinic in Nashville after the legal aid organizations merged in 2002. Veteran attorney Robert Goodrich recently joined the staff to handle these duties after Nadler’s second retirement.
- Worked with Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee Executive Director Gary Housepian to establish a tax law practice group, with at least one attorney in each of the agency’s eight offices. Nine legal aid attorneys are now admitted to practice before the Tax Court.
- Established a toll-free tax help hotline (866-481-366) that handles more than 600 calls a year.
- Worked with a colleague to translate more than 20 brochures into Spanish to help serve a broader population.
- Helped spread the growth of low-income taxpayer clinics across the country. There were 38 when she started the program in Tennessee and there are now 138, many of which benefited from training and materials Gillum provided.
Along with all of these achievements Gillum remains active in representing low-income taxpayers in Tennessee. In fact, some of her greatest achievements have come in the courtroom, where she has scored precedent-setting tax court wins for her clients, including Lantz v. Commissioner, Vinatieri v. Commissioner and Marlow v. Commissioner. In the Marlow case, for example, not only did Gillum’s work help the family avoid a $58,000 settlement and instead net a $18,000 refund, it also ended up causing the Tax Court to clarify a number of points and stop the IRS from using circumstantial evidence against a taxpayer contesting a ruling.
All of this good work has not gone unnoticed. The LaFollette native was inducted into the Equal Justice Works Alumni Hall of Fame in 2014, was earlier selected for the Tennessee Bar Association’s Leadership Law Program and was awarded the B. Riney Green Award from the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services for outstanding efforts to promote collaboration among legal aid programs.
Going forward, Gillum sees only new challenges and opportunities “I still really get inspired helping my clients,” she says. “And possible changes coming in the tax code will dramatically affect our work.” If major reforms moving through Congress now are adopted, “it will be a new landscape for me. Tax law changes enough so that you can never get too comfortable.”
— Barry Kolar
Law Student Volunteer of the Year
The Law Student Volunteer of the Year 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 ALEXA SPATA, a 2017 graduate of the Belmont University College of Law.
When she began work as an intern for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), Alexa Spata knew it was a good fit. “It just felt right,” she recalls of her interview for the position at TALS.
Spata hadn’t had much experience with pro bono work as a law student at Belmont University College of Law, but upon scoring the internship with TALS, she dove right in. Executive director of TALS, Ann Pruitt, wrote via email that “starting with her interview, it was clear that Alexa was committed to jumping into our mission and helping us deliver strong outcomes.”
From January through June 2016, Spata worked more than 240 hours for TALS. During her internship, she researched legal issues raised by callers of TALS’ 1-844-HELP4TN phone line — a toll-free hotline that provides low-income Tennesseans with legal information and lawyer referrals. Spata also helped increase the overall efficiency of the hotline by helping TALS staff design and test a new process for handling inbound calls by developing a script that would allow law student interns to triage the callers’ legal issues, create an intake form and schedule a callback time for attorney and client.
In her letter nominating Spata for this award, Pruitt writes “Alexa’s work on the helpline drove attorney efficiency, allowing our staff attorney to focus his time on delivering advice with a clear picture of the caller’s situation presented on the intake form.”
Spata also turned her attention toward the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Free Legal Answers website, a platform in which the public can submit legal questions that are answered by volunteer licensed attorneys. After examining the site, Spata suggested creating a visual reminder that would alert volunteer attorneys if they had accepted questions, but not yet answered them. The ABA liked Spata’s idea so much, they implemented it across the Free Legal Answers online platform nationally.
“Alexa has been outstanding in every respect,” Pruitt says. “Her work product, work ethic and attitude are stellar. She demonstrated the ability to multitask and successfully manage long- and short-term projects, meeting deadlines and delivering excellent work product. The entire TALS’ staff enjoyed working with her. In particular, we were impressed with her passion for our mission to strengthen the delivery of civil legal help to vulnerable Tennesseans.”
In the fall of 2017, long after her internship had ended, Spata returned to TALS’ annual Equal Justice University conference to play the role of a witness in the National Institute for Trial Advocacy’s trial skills workshop. “I just kept coming back,” Spata says. “I liked what we were doing and I really liked the mission.”
Spata knew from an early age she wanted to be a lawyer and, after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, went on to law school. While at Belmont she was part of the university’s mock trial program, her team making it to the ABA’s Labor and Employment Mock Trial Competition semifinals in late 2016. She also helped found the Belmont Criminal Law Journal and was a peer mentor.
Since earning her law degree in May 2017 and passing the bar exam later that year, Spata and her law school roommate, have gone out on their own and started the firm of Baumgardner & Spata LLP. “We’re mostly focusing on criminal law,” Spata says. “We’re going to start taking appointments in criminal court and then do some family law stuff and whatever else comes through our door.”
Though she had an interest for criminal law from the beginning, Spata says she grew to love the legal services side of law after her time with TALS. “I feel like going and taking appointments in criminal law is kind of my way to reconcile both of those things because I’m still helping out indigent people who can’t afford the representation they need,” she says. “I kind of intend on taking as many [appointments] as I can for forever, basically.” She goes on to say, “We have very big dreams about this firm. We really want to make it one of the best criminal defense firms in Nashville.”
When asked about Spata’s new venture, Pruitt says, “The thing that excites me the most for Alexa in starting her own practice is that I feel she found that spot where her own passion and expertise intersect through her work at TALS. At TALS, Alexa 100 percent bought into our client-centered approach to everything we do; she got to practice it and made contributions that drove lasting improvements to TALS’ services.”
Spata believes the lessons she learned from her time with TALS will carry over into her own practice and shape the way she interacts with clients in the future. Recalling one instance at TALS in which an exhausted client had been searching for legal help all day, Spata says, “It wasn’t so much about her legal issue at that point: it was more that she just needed someone to talk to. She just needed someone to tell her that it was going to be OK and that we were going to try and help her. And whether or not we could, what meant the most to her was that someone was actually trying at this point after leaving message after message.”
Going forward, Spata believes she’ll stay involved with pro bono work and believes it’s important for other attorneys to do the same. “I know it’s not like a mandatory thing that you have to do, but I feel like we all should,” she says. “We should feel obligated to give back in any way we can, and I think the biggest thing is using our skills and our knowledge to just help people with their simple little problems. To us it’s really not a big deal … but to that person you’re helping, it’s everything. It’s the difference between them keeping their child or the difference between them being able to stay in their house. I think a lot of people forget how privileged — just the fact that you graduated from college, just the fact you graduated from high school — that actually makes you.
“I do think we have a duty to do what we can to give back at least at some point throughout the year, at least a couple hours,” she says, “no matter what kind of law you actually practice.”
— Kate Prince
Katharine Heriges is the Tennessee Bar Association’s communications coordinator, Barry Kolar is TBA assistant executive director and Kate Prince is TBA Leadership Development and Innovations Coordinator.