Over the past six weeks, I have served as an Pro Bono Fellow here at Baker Donelson, but it feels like it has only been a matter of days. My time here has been spent on projects that brought the firm a whopping total of $0.00 and absolutely no billable hours. The clients I meet do not wear designer suits or run successful businesses. Instead, I have primarily met with homeless clients who merely want to relinquish the baggage of citations that prevent them from finding work and shelter. I have been a liaison between a mother of a severely mentally challenged young woman and the Social Security Administration. The matters I have contributed to have been more emotional and heartbreaking than the workload of an average Summer Associate.

The debtor’s prison case in Harpersville, infamously referred to as “judicially sanctioned extortion,” was my introduction to the Pro Bono practice at Baker Donelson. Discussing with attorneys working on the project, I soon realized that this was not an isolated problem. Private probation companies had also been in Tennessee and still exist in other states. These companies prey on low income people who receive minor violations and drain them of all their money until they can no longer pay, at which point, they are jailed. It is well settled law that a court cannot imprison someone for failure to pay a fine if they are unable to pay it. Harpersville ignored the law and penalized indigency.

I shadowed Lisa Borden during my first experience at Turning Point, a court program created to specifically help the homeless population overcome homelessness by examining their legal problems without the fear of incarceration. I listened to a judge speak with a homeless man who had unpaid traffic tickets. He was working diligently to get a new driver’s license and remain sober. He had become involved in a rehab program, not only helping himself, but leading the group on occasion, aiding in other people’s recovery. He had a job and had begun paying rent. The judge looked at him and, recognizing all the man had accomplished, dismissed all but one of his citations because of the promise he showed. The other one will likely be dismissed next time.  The gratitude in the room was palpable.

People do not care about prisoners. This became glaringly obvious as I read through a 140 page complaint that detailed the horrors prisoners in the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) face. Stabbings, amputations, suicide attempts, and even death top the list of things one may experience when he or she is incarcerated in Alabama. Because of contracts with medical and mental health providers, the complaint says, ADOC incentivizes poor or nonexistent care for prisoners. Along with being sentenced to time in prison, one can also expect to live with undiagnosed tuberculosis while bunking with scabies. These companies feed on the inhumane treatment of prisoners.

Without pro bono work, none of these people would have representation. The cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners would continue without disruption; homeless people would avoid the court system out of fear that their inability to pay would have harsh consequences, and indigent people would continue to be jailed for the simple act of being poor. I have just completed my first year of law school at Cumberland School of Law, and my time as a Pro Bono Fellow for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz has been the most rewarding and important experience of my life.

I earned my Bachelor’s degree at Huntingdon College which preaches the motto, “Enter to grow in wisdom; go forth to apply that wisdom in service.” This job was just a sampling of the incredible amount of good a lawyer is capable of doing. I have directly taken the wisdom gained during my undergrad experience and 1L year and applied it in service. I am so grateful to Baker Donelson for having a Pro Bono program for law students.

Scotty Welch wins ABA TIPS Pro Bono Award

welchScotty Welch, recipient of the ABA TIPS Edmund S. Muskie Award for Pro Bono Service, with ABA President-Elect Linda Klein.

I’m very excited that the American Bar Association Tort & Insurance Practice Section presented its 2015 Edmund S. Muskie Pro Bono Service Award to Scotty Welch!  Since the award is given to recognize TIPS members “who have the attributes embodied by Muskie: his dedication to justice for all citizens, his public service and his role as a lawyer and distinguished leader of the section,” it would be hard to choose a better recipient than Scotty Welch.

Scotty has been practicing law in Mississippi, where the need for pro bono legal assistance are particularly acute, since 1964. During the more than a decade that I have had the privilege of practicing with him, he has consistently been a leader in both doing pro bono work in Jackson, and in encouraging other lawyers to do so.  In addition to having been an active TIPS member, a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and the American Bar Foundation, and a past President of the Mississippi Bar Association, while maintaining a very active and successful practice, Scotty has always made time to represent the people who could not pay him.

Scotty has worked frequently with two Mississippi organizations, the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Program and Mission First, to help low income individuals in Jackson with their legal concerns. Mission First matters during the last few years have included extensive work with the conservatorship for a man who became disabled after suffering a head injury, assisting a low income homeowner with the deed and homestead exemption for a home inherited from his father, and establishing guardianship for a minor child whose parent passed away and handling claims for insurance proceeds.  Scotty has been a reliable volunteer for MVLP legal clinics, and most recently volunteered to participate in its divorce mediation pilot program.  He was among the Baker Donelson attorneys specifically recognized by MVLP, in naming Baker Donelson its Curtis E. Coker Access to Justice Award recipient for 2014, as having provided it invaluable service.

These matters are typical of the kinds of cases that Scotty has taken on frequently over the years, while also tackling more systemic issues, such as work on an amicus brief for the National Black Chamber of Commerce addressing a potential threat to the right to trial by jury. In addition, he has been someone I can count on to rally the pro bono troops in our Jackson office, to set the example for our younger attorneys, and to never let the more senior attorneys think they have finished doing the pro bono part of their careers.

During 2014 and 2015, Scotty devoted almost 90 pro bono hours to representing the widow of a disabled veteran in appealing denial of VA benefits to the Court of Veterans Appeals. The VA had determined that although the veteran had long suffered from an extensive, service-connected, disability, the cause of death was not related to his disability.  The case involved analysis of more than 1500 pages of medical records and study of legal precedent.  A court mandated conference resulted in the VA attorney agreeing  to an order of remand, because Scotty was able to demonstrate that a VA physician ignored relevant evidence and used an improper standard for proof of service connection and that the record before the Board of Veterans Appeals contained another’s medical records. A very grateful client will be represented at a new hearing before the Board of Veterans Appeals by representatives of Disabled American Veterans.

Most recently, Scotty has devoted nearly 150 hours so far to a pro bono matter involving international child abduction. Scotty represents the mother, who was referred by The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in seeking the return of her two girls through the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.  This has been a substantial undertaking, requiring becoming familiar with international and Israeli law, numerous court proceedings and a significant amount of discovery.

Scotty’s devotion to pro bono has never been limited to any narrow field of interest. In pursuit of helping others, he has always been willing to dive in to new issues, unfamiliar areas of law, and even international engagement.

Congratulations to Scotty!  We are so proud and grateful to call him our own.

 

Sharing Knowledge On Homelessness Across The Pond

We are so fortunate to have an integral role in legal help for the homeless in New Orleans.  In addition to working closely with the Homeless Experience Legal Protection program of shelter legal clinics there, attorney Sherry Dolan also acts at the coordinator of the New Orleans Homeless Court, and serves on the ABA’s Standing Committee on Homelessness and Poverty.  Recently, Sherry and Lilia Valdez-Lindsley, Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist for the New Orleans Veterans Administration, had the opportunity to host John Cassap, Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellow, on a tour of several New Orleans area collaborative partners in that city’s efforts to end homelessness. (more…)

Amazing news here in Alabama this week, as the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that 54 towns across the State are ending their contracts with private probation company Judicial Correction Services. (Read about it here) Those who have followed my blog or the news in this area know that JCS (as well as some other private probation operations) charge a monthly fee to low income defendants on “pay only” probation, often resulting in already poor people paying hundreds or thousands more than their original fine, and sometimes being jailed for failing to pay, all because they were unable to pay in the first place. We call that debtors’ prison, and it’s unconstitutional. (more…)

Over the last several years, we’ve been proud to assist our pro bono client, River City Capital Investment Corporation, in its work to provide loan funding for small businesses in low income communities in the Memphis area. In addition to forming the entity and representing it in obtaining its 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, Carla Peacher-Ryan and others working with her in our Memphis office have had the opportunity to document and close all of the important, life altering loans River City Capital has made. So, we’re very excited that all the hard work has paid off in the form of River City Capital’s certification by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution, the only one of its kind in Memphis. (more…)

Work To End Homelessness Garners NLADA Award For Baker Donelson

This happy group of folks was very honored recently to accept Baker Donelson’s second NLADA Beacon of Justice Award in Washington, DC.  We were so proud to be included in the same company as firms who have been doing great work on important issues like immigration detention, housing, and serving those with mental illness through medical-legal partnership.  A full list of the award winners is available here. (more…)

I love it when a law firm mover and shaker, a legal profession mover and shaker, is also a pro bono mover and shaker. That’s why I am especially thrilled that Nancy Degan is the winner of Baker Donelson’s Firmwide Pro Bono Award for 2015. Nancy has long been a force to be reckoned with, at Baker Donelson and in the profession. (more…)

Recently, I drove about 300 miles round trip to attend traffic court in a rural Black Belt county in Alabama.

My client is a homeless veteran of the US Army. He served honorably, returned home and worked hard at a relatively low wage job, but unfortunately became involved with drugs and alcohol and his life went off the rails. During his decade long addiction, he got into a fair amount of minor trouble – traffic infractions mostly, including a misdemeanor DUI. He lost his job and became homeless. (more…)