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 Nashville attorney ANGIE BERGMAN. 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.
From speaking with Angie Bergman, you would never know that she’d been up the entire night before with her five-year-old, who had a stomach bug. She shows no signs of sleep deprivation as she cheerfully and assuredly speaks of her husband and three children and of the court case that has occupied much of her professional life for going on three years.
A Wisconsin native, Bergman, 32, spent six years in Chicago working in business consulting before realizing that law school would be a better fit. She attended Vanderbilt Law School and by the time she graduated in 2013, had fallen in love with Nashville and decided it was a good place to land.
Bergman began work at Bass Berry & Sims in Nashville and, in the spring of 2016, was enjoying her third year of practice in the firm’s government investigations group, primarily focusing on healthcare-related fraud investigations. But, even with a few pro bono projects on the side, she couldn’t help but feel that there was something missing from her practice.
And then one day, Bergman’s birthday to be exact, the phone rang.
On the line was Dawn Deaner, who was Metro Nashville Public Defender (MPD) at the time, calling to ask Bergman for her assistance in representing a client of the MPD, pro bono. The client, John Hernandez, had been indicted on a murder charge in 2013 and had spent the following three years incarcerated and awaiting a trial that was continuously delayed because of the MPD’s overwhelming caseload.
Hernandez had filed a motion to represent himself so that his trial could occur as soon as possible and raised the claim that he had been deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial based on his lengthy post-indictment incarceration.
Hernandez’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial and his request to represent himself because of an underfunded public defender’s office highlighted that he was being forced to choose between constitutional rights: his right to counsel and his right to a speedy trial.
Deaner, recognizing that her office could not do what their client needed, decided to bring in outside counsel specifically to argue that the client had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial because of a systemic breakdown in funding for the public defenders in Davidson County. Her mission was to prove that the post-indictment delay to her client’s trial should be attributed to the state because of the systemic underfunding of the public defender’s office.
It was a daunting task. Bergman, who had been back from maternity leave for a mere two weeks after having her second child, had never practiced in this area before and knew how big the project would be. Yet, by her account and those who nominated her for this award, she immediately and enthusiastically came on board.
In addition to searching for the piece missing from her practice and finding the legal argument compelling, Bergman had even more reasons for saying yes so quickly, including “realizing I wanted to be invested in the city, that we felt like we were supposed to be in Nashville and part of being in Nashville means seeing and hearing the needs of the city and then becoming involved to help address those.
So, when the project came up, it really just fit what direction I was hoping to go and something I was hoping to add to my practice and it just kind of hit all the right notes.”
Without hesitation, Bergman immersed herself in data from public defender’s offices across the state: the standards for their caseloads, a history of the funding they’d received from the state and how often the MPD specifically had warned the state that, because of inadequate funding, they could not appropriately represent their clients. She found an expert witness, a scholar in this field, who could help breakdown the data and she pored over years of writings about problems with indigent defense.
To better understand the complex history of her client’s case, Bergman also personally met with Hernandez several times and worked closely with his appointed public defenders, Georgia Sims and Kevin Griffith.
“Ms. Bergman never hesitated to sit down in a jail cell and discuss litigation strategies with Mr. Hernandez,” Sims and Griffith wrote in their nomination. “Even while juggling elected officials and massive amounts of confusing data, she never lost sight of Mr. Hernandez’s humanity or the importance of his voice.”
This laborious fact-finding mission resulted in the filing of a comprehensive motion to have Hernandez’s charges dismissed over the violation of his right to a speedy trial. Bergman laid out her case during a three-day evidentiary hearing in which she called Sims, Griffith and Deaner to the stand. Adding to the significance of the hearing was Davidson County’s elected District Attorney General, Glenn Funk, who personally appeared to represent the state.
Although the motion was denied, the trial court noted that “a legitimate question has been raised as to whether the Metropolitan Davidson County Public Defender’s office is understaffed and/or underfunded based on the sheer volume of cases.”
Hernandez was ultimately convicted during trial and, true to form, Bergman jumped at the chance to continue her representation of him during the appeals process. The Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) gave permission for Bergman to file a separate brief on appeal on the claim Hernandez was denied his right to a speedy trial. In August 2018, she argued her case to the CCA and is now awaiting a ruling.
In his letter nominating Bergman for this award, fellow Bass, Berry & Sims attorney David Esquivel says of his co-worker: “What distinguishes Angie and her work in this case was her willingness to sacrifice on short notice her busy practice for paying clients, as well as time with her family, and to devote the significant time required to do this case right in a quick time frame.”
Bergman currently has a whopping 425 hours-and-counting of pro bono work invested in this case, a number she accrued while also maintaining her law practice and family life. When confronted with this number, she is quick to share credit with the team of lawyers and paralegals she supervised and speaks often of how grateful she is for the support of her family, Bass, Berry & Sims and the work done by the Metro Public Defender’s Office.
She hopes highlighting the inadequate funding of public defender’s offices will help everyone see the people behind the issue instead of regarding it as a political issue or money grab.
“That is not how I see it and that is not how the public defender’s office sees it. We see it as the individual representation of an individual who has been subjected to constitutional harm. Our obligation as lawyers and as people is to see people and to see not just political overtones,” she says.
“That is the unconscionable harm here. The harm here is to people, not to a budget.”
— Kate Prince
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 ADRIENNE KITTOS.
Immigrants today face an almost daily barrage of attacks from politicians and the media: They’re drug dealers, criminals, rapists, animals. They hate America and they want to bring it down. They should be sent back to where they came from.
For the thousands of immigrants living in Nashville, it can be difficult to keep fear and uncertainty from growing in their minds, regardless of their legal status or how they came to the country. For them, a good lawyer is more than just someone who knows immigration law. It is someone who can be a guide, a mentor and a compassionate listener as they work to build new lives for their families in the United States.
For the past nine years, that person often has been Adrienne Kittos. The legal director at the non-profit Justice for Our Neighbors, Kittos, 34, has embraced JFON’s mission of providing high-quality immigration representation while also counseling and supporting thousands of immigrants.
“Adrienne has tremendous humility and grace, always shying from the spotlight and staying laser-focused on the needs of the clients before her,” Vanderbilt Law’s Spring Miller wrote in her nomination of Kittos. “She has secured immigration protections and lawful permanent resident status for hundreds of victims of criminal activity and domestic violence, ensuring that those individuals and their families have the opportunity to live safe, healthy lives in the U.S. … To say that she has transformed the lives of hundreds of families in middle Tennessee over the past nine years would be an understatement.”
Kittos began working with immigrants while an undergrad at Vanderbilt and joined the fledgling Nashville JFON office right out of Vanderbilt Law School. She was its first full-time attorney.
“It was a pretty lean operation,” Kittos says today of those early days at Belmont United Methodist Church, which hosted the organization in a room next to where the church’s bell choir practiced. “But we were lucky to have a board and volunteers who connected us with other nonprofits doing work here in the Nashville immigrant community.”
Tennessee’s Justice for our Neighbors is one of 19 branches nationwide of the organization founded in 1999 by the United Methodist Church as a practical response to the legal challenges that low-income immigrants face in the United States. Nashville attorney Katherine Dix launched the Nashville office that now annually serves more than 500 clients a year from more than 40 countries. Wade Munday serves as executive director for the team now based at Casa Azafrán.
Some of Kittos’ first cases involved U Visas -- visas set aside for victims of crime who were willing to assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity – and today, those still make up much of her practice.
“U Visa work is really incredible,” Kittos says. “The types of crimes that people have lived through … and to make something good come out of that … it is really redemptive.”
One of those cases involved Rocío Martínez, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager. She worked steadily and had children, but feared deportation and separation from her children.
With the help of JFON, she was able to obtain a U Visa, because she had been a crime victim who helped police arrest and prosecute the man who had robbed her and others.
“The resilience of our clients is just incredible,” Kittos says.
Her other work is equally compelling. She has helped develop strategies to counsel and protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients fearful of losing their status and also advocated for unaccompanied immigrant children facing deportation.
“The biggest thing to deal with is the fear people have with [immigration law] changes,” she says. “It is hard to keep track of what’s going on. They may hear something from a neighbor or online that may not be true or may not affect them. But at the same time, many changes do affect them. … It’s a little bit hard to advise people when things are changing so quickly and some of the options that may have been available in past we don’t have now.”
Kittos has also pushed forward JFON’s educational mission.
Once a month, JFON hosts a Saturday legal clinic that often involves more volunteers than clients. The role for these church members and other volunteers is to assist the clients, but they are also there to have the opportunity to meet and interact with immigrants who may be from a different culture and have different life experiences, but still share common interests and values.
She has also engaged attorneys newly interested in providing pro bono immigration-related services. Miller, who is also the assistant dean for public interest at Vanderbilt Law, recalls one clinic where
Kittos had nearly 20 students helping her conduct intake and provide advice to clients at a clinic.
This educational work gives Kittos hope even during these difficult times for immigrants.
“Things are so divisive, it is hard to help people understand who it is we are working with,” she says. “I think a lot of that is a misunderstanding of how our system works. I talk to people who are not friendly to the work I do, but it is because they don’t really understand. I honestly believe that for many people, if they just had a little more education about what people are facing and what the immigration system really looks like, we would be in a better place.”
— 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 AMBER VARGAS, a recent UT Law graduate.
Even in the legal profession, among which volunteer service is exceptionally high, one would be hard pressed to find a volunteer more dedicated to doing some of the hardest work imaginable, and at such a young age, than Amber Vargas.
Vargas, 25, a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, has been an active volunteer on behalf of domestic violence victims since she was an undergraduate student at Maryville College. This year, soon after graduating from law school and taking the bar, she earned a spot at her “dream job,” working as an attorney at Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands (LAS).
From Camden, a small town in Benton County, Vargas has always had an empathetic heart and a desire to help others. She knew what she wanted to do from a young age, although she wasn’t always sure how to do it.
“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” Vargas says. “I wanted to work with people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice — either by intimidation by the process, lack of education, poverty — I wanted to represent people like that.”
While she candidly admitted she was first inspired to pursue a legal career by Phylicia Rashad’s attorney character on “The Cosby Show” (“I thought Mrs. Huxtable was awesome,” Vargas says), it wasn’t until she witnessed Kathryn Ellis at work in court that she realized she had found her true calling. Ellis is the pro bono director at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET).
“That was the first time I saw legal aid attorneys at work,” Vargas says. “I was like, that’s a thing? That’s a job? That’s what I want to be! I can’t believe people are paid to do this; it’s perfect!”
Vargas experienced her courtroom epiphany while working with Haven House in Blount County, a shelter for domestic violence victims, during her undergraduate years. There, she did anything and everything on behalf of the residents, including driving them on errands, helping staff a 24-hour hotline, and working many late nights. It was during this time she honed her skills as an advocate for individuals who have experienced trauma.
“She’s got such a calm demeanor and a compassion and empathy for victims, and it comes from such a sincere place,” Rachel Moses says. Moses is a mentor of Vargas’s who helped bring her on board to her original internship at LAS, which began when Vargas was just in her first year of law school.
Both with her work at Haven House and in her capacity as a legal aid intern, it was clear that Vargas had a unique ability to work with victims, and was especially gifted at building open communication and earning their trust.
“Amber has always been able to look at a person and see where they are — emotionally, mentally and physically — and just relate to the person, make them feel safe, and make them feel like they have opportunities to be away from their abuser,” Moses says.
Vargas, who majored in psychology, downplays her gift, saying she simply practices active listening. But she says that her number one goal in every interaction, especially when she was at the shelter, was to make sure survivors know they are not being judged.
“We want people to get out of those relationships and stay safe and grow, but it’s counterintuitive to talk down to them when a victim wants to go back to a violent situation,” she says. “That’s the hardest thing to deal with.”
“Logically I know what’s going to happen, but I still have a heavy heart when someone informs me that no, they don’t want an order of protection, no, they don’t want a divorce.”
And that’s a paradox — while working with domestic violence victims was Vargas’ ideal position, it’s a tough one. She explained that in various volunteer situations, there would be a ton of turnover among staff and interns, because the work is mentally draining.
“There’s a lot of burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma,” she says. “It’s stressful, it’s heavy, it’s emotional.”
How does someone so young cope?
“A lot of compartmentalizing,” Vargas said. “Actually taking breaks. Since I’m still new, I don’t have as heavy of a caseload as some of my colleagues — that was intentional. And when I go home, I go home. I tell my coworkers when I’m on lunch, ‘I’m not talking about work right now!’”
Still, it’s hard not to take it home with you, she admits.
“It’s easier said than done,” Vargas says. “There’s still at least moments in time where I’m like ‘if only so-and-so was going to leave their abuser, if only this hadn’t happened in court.’”
She says she deals by focusing on living life: playing games during lunch or going to trivia nights with friends.
“It’s just a process,” she says. “Recognizing when things are too much and trying to learn my own limits.” Perhaps most soberly, she recognizes: “I’m no good to anybody if I’m just a mess.”
A quality support system of coworkers and friends is a requirement as well, she says.
Moses, herself an accomplished legal aid attorney, admits that after 16 years she’s “gotten crustier around the edges,” and says that having someone with a focused energy like Vargas around is invigorating.
“I feel like I was a better attorney because I had Amber on my side,” Moses says.
Vargas now finds herself having achieved her primary goal: she became a legal aid attorney, hired before she even had her bar exam results in hand.
“I’m still tickled when I put things in the calendar for the next couple of months,” Vargas said. “I told all of my coworkers ‘I’m still going to be doing this in March!’ I’m just amazed. This is my dream job.”
She’s now working shoulder-to-shoulder with some of her heroes. Where does she go from here?
“The dream is to work myself out of a job,” Vargas said. “To help all of the current victims to stop being victims. To educate people and help victims get what they need.”
Unfortunately, that future is a long way off, so for now, she focuses on the small victories.
“What I feel best about — and it’s happened a few times — was when different clients have thanked me for listening to them,” Vargas said. “The people who have taken the time to say ‘you listened to me,
I needed somebody to listen to that, thank you.’ Those are the things I feel best about right now.”
She also said she is becoming a part of the community in Cookeville and doesn’t see herself leaving anytime soon. Her colleagues are also keen to keep her around.
“To watch her through her law school career continue to use her law education to empower victims through her work,” Moses says, “I just think it’s been amazing to watch and we’re blessed to have her.”
— Katharine Heriges
Kate Prince is the Tennessee Bar Association’s leadership development and innovations coordinator; Barry Kolar is TBA’s assistant executive director; and Katharine Heriges is TBA’s communications coordinator.