PLI disclosure hearing report: Lubbock, October 29

Nine lawyers braved cold, wet conditions to testify at a public hearing in Lubbock on whether lawyers should be required to disclose to clients if they carry professional liability insurance. Eight of the nine voiced opposition to a disclosure requirement; one expressed her support. The Supreme Court of Texas has asked the State Bar Board of Directors to recommend whether such a policy should be adopted. The Board will vote in January.

Three West Texas lawyers who serve on the Board of Directors attended the hearing — Guy Choate of San Angelo, David Copeland of Midland, and Kyle Lewis of Dumas. State Bar President Roland Johnson of Fort Worth and his immediate predecessor, Harper Estes of Midland, provided background on why the hearing was taking place and answered questions put to them by members of the audience. Jonathan Smaby, executive director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, moderated. Recordings of the Lubbock hearing and the five previous public hearings around the state are available at www.texasbar.com/plidisclosure.

Among the points raised during public testimony:

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Pro Bono Profile: Jim Hunter

 The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Jim Hunter knows how fortunate he is. As a volunteer with the Cameron County Community Justice Program, he takes on family law cases. A current client is a terminally ill woman whose husband abandoned her and their three children. “When I look at the problems she has, I know that mine pale in comparison,” says Hunter, a partner in Royston Rayzor in the Rio Grande Valley. “As attorneys, we have been blessed with law degrees and great careers — we have a duty to help people.”

Hunter, who practices maritime, commercial and injury litigation, is serving as the 2009–10 president of the Cameron County Bar Association. He says he is using his presidency as a way to get more attorneys in Cameron and Willacy counties on board to do pro bono work. “My mantra this year is to get lawyers to understand how fortunate we are and that we have an obligation not only to our clients and to the public, but to our profession, to improve the perception of lawyers.”

Hunter plugs pro bono wherever he goes and has been successful in recruiting many attorneys to participate in the Community Justice Program. The beauty in the program, he says, lies in the resources offered to volunteer attorneys not familiar with family law. “The nice things about the program is that we have mentors,” he says. “They make it as easy as possible. We have had lawyers who have never taken a family law case and they end up taking more because they have such a wonderful experience in the program.”

PLI disclosure hearing report: Dallas, October 28

More than 50 lawyers and members of the public took part in a lively public hearing on whether lawyers should be required to disclose to clients if they carry professional liability insurance. The Supreme Court of Texas has asked the State Bar Board of Directors to make a recommendation on the issue. The Board is soliciting input in advance of its anticipated January 2010 vote on the issue.

The hearing — the fifth in a series of seven around the state — took place at the Belo Mansion, home of the Dallas Bar Association. Several State Bar directors from North Texas were on hand, including Talmage Boston, Beverly Godbey, Tim Mountz, Mark Sales, Steve Bolden, John Jansonius, and Dan Micciche of Dallas; Janna Clarke and Mark Daniel of Fort Worth; Deborah Gagliardi of Arlington; Mike Gregory of Denton; John Hatchel of Woodway; and Chad Baruch of Rowlett. State Bar President Roland Johnson of Fort Worth provided an overview of the issue. Jonathan Smaby, executive director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, moderated the discussion. An audio recording of the hearing is available at www.texasbar.com/plidisclosure

Ten lawyers testified publicly. With varying levels of vehemence, nine expressed opposition to a disclosure requirement while one voiced support for the measure. Other attendees indicated their positions in writing. Of those, 19 opposed making insurance disclosure mandatory while one supported the proposal.

Among the points raised during public testimony:

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Pro Bono Profile: David Grenardo of Houston

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

“It feels strange to be recognized for doing something that you should already be doing,” says David Grenardo. “Not much prodding needs to be done. We all just want to help people.”

When Grenardo graduated from Duke Law in North Carolina, he wanted to help people. So, when he began practicing in Los Angeles, he started doing pro bono work with the L.A. County Bar Association. He also worked for The Alliance for Children’s Rights, San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, and Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law.

Grenardo is now a senior associate with King & Spalding LLP in Houston and works from Houston with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) in Austin. He is on the TCRP board, which works with attorneys in private practice on pro bono cases and is currently targeting law firms to get involved. He has received numerous awards for his pro bono efforts, including Texas Civil Rights Project Pro Bono Champion, the State Bar of California Wiley W. Manuel Award, the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program Distinguished Service Award, and Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law Pro Bono Panel Volunteer of the Year.

An ex Rice University football player, Grenardo is also on the board of The “R” Association, which helps mentor student-athletes. He tells athletes thinking about becoming attorneys that they have an obligation to help people who can’t help themselves.

Grenardo believes that “what is most important is to do something you’re passionate about – and if you are passionate about something, you can find a way to make it work.” He is passionate about civil rights and first amendment type cases. “Anytime you’re standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, that’s a great opportunity. It’s amazing.”

When Grenardo works on his pro bono cases, he feels he is “changing peoples’ lives.” “It’s in the fight; it’s not if you win or lose,” he says. "You take the good, the bad, and do everything you can to help these clients.”

Pro Bono Profile: Chris Wrampelmeier of Amarillo

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

For Amarillo attorney Chris Wrampelmeier, pro bono work is an imperative. “When you’re given certain blessings, it’s incumbent on you to use them wisely and help other people,” he says.

Wrampelmeier is a family lawyer with Underwood, Wilson, Berry, Stein & Johnson, P.C., where he is a shareholder and responsible for guiding the firm’s associates as they begin their careers. To that end he involves associates in a local legal aid clinic that the firm sponsors, where they gain experience outside their regular practice areas. “I have been pleasantly surprised how, to the man and woman, they thoroughly enjoy working at the clinics and are willing to do it again and again,” he related.

Early in his career, Wrampelmeier became active in the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section, serving as a course director, committee member, and now council member. He combines that service with local pro bono work, including legal clinics where attorneys earn CLE credit by agreeing to take pro bono cases. He says he loves family law, even though he once vowed it was the one area of law he would never practice. “What makes is great is that the people who do family are wonderful, both in Amarillo and around the state,” he says.

Throughout his career Wrampelmeier has handled pro bono cases through Legal Aid of Northwest Texas. The organization named him pro bono attorney of the year in 2001 and 2004.

Wrampelmeier says most of his pro bono clients are very grateful, but receiving thanks is not why he does the work. “Deep in all of our hearts we believe everyone should have the same chance, start at the same line, and pull ahead or fall back due to their own skills or faults - not their economic circumstances,” he says. “Sometimes people just need a level playing field.”

 

PLI disclosure hearing report: El Paso, October 27

During the fourth of seven public hearings the State Bar of Texas is holding around the state on whether lawyers should be required to disclose to clients if they have professional liability insurance, all six of the attendees who testified publicly spoke against mandating disclosure. At the request of the Supreme Court of Texas, the State Bar Board of Directors will vote to make a recommendation to the Court during the Board's January 2010 meeting.

The public hearing took place at the El Paso Commissioners Courtroom. State Bar President Roland Johnson attended, as did three members of the State Bar Board of Directors: Jeanne C. "Cezy" Collins and Cori Harbour of El Paso, and Pablo Almaguer of McAllen. Harbor is president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association; Almaguer serves as one of four minority directors on the Board. Jonathan Smaby, executive director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, moderated the discussion. An audio recording of the hearing is available at www.texasbar.com/plidisclosure.

Among the points raised during public testimony:

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Pro Bono Profile: Ken Fuller of Dallas

Ken FullerThe National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Ken Fuller has been called a “godsend” to the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, and it’s easy to see why. He has devoted at least two days of pro bono services per week through DVAP for the past seven years and has won numerous awards for his efforts, including the State Bar’s Frank J. Scurlock Award and DVAP’s Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year.

The honors are more than justified because Fuller’s contributions run deep. A long-time name partner in Koons, Fuller, Vanden Eykel & Robertson, P.C., Fuller has drawn on his years of family law expertise to become a trusted and invaluable mentor to DVAP’s volunteer and staff attorneys. In 2002, he stepped in as a mentor when the program’s mentor staff attorney resigned, then continued to volunteer in various capacities after a full-time mentoring attorney was hired. DVAP staff members have found that attorneys seem more eager to volunteer when they know Fuller will be on hand to help.

Fuller, who has been board certified in family law since 1975, also works with DVAP’s pro se program, which provides classes for low-income persons to learn how to represent themselves in simple family law matters. He has contributed to the written instructions and has helped update the program’s pleadings. In addition, he assists in training volunteer attorneys through various classes offered through DVAP and does not hesitate to refer pro bono cases, especially more difficult ones, to his colleagues. 

 

National Pro Bono Celebration: Oct. 25 - 31, 2009

The annual National Pro Bono Celebration is an effort to showcase the difference that pro bono lawyers make to the nation, the justice system, the community, and the clients they serve.

Each weekday this month, this blog has featured Texas pro bono lawyers and their work.

For details on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org. For information on Texas events and activities, see the website of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

In recognition of the celebration, the State Bar of Texas board of directors passed a resolution commending the Texas legal community for its pro bono work and encouraging all bar members to contribute. Read it here.

Random Profile - Stefanie Klein, Dallas

For Random Profiles, we randomly pick one of our 80,000-plus attorneys, call them, and do a Q&A. We've found that every Texas lawyer has an interesting story. Will yours be next?

Best thing about being a lawyer:  Being paid to argue! Aside from that, the best surprise about the practice of law has been the people. Whether the interaction is with opposing counsel, co-counsel, clients, witnesses, or judges, the opportunity to teach, to learn from, to help and be helped by the people around me makes this profession worthwhile.

Favorite saying/quote:  “We’ll probably find it if we start picking everything up.”

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Pro Bono Profile: Ernesto J. Dominguez

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Ernesto J. Dominguez admits that for a time, he was a lawyer who was too busy to do pro bono work. Then, he read a pro bono article in the Hidalgo County Bar Association newsletter and something clicked. “I used to say, ‘I don’t have time to do pro bono.’ Then I reached a point in my life — professionally and personally — where I felt that I just needed to give back to my profession,” he says. “I also felt (pro bono) was just a good way to assist someone who needs help.”

Dominguez, a partner in the McAllen firm of Orendain & Dominguez, says he learned about the Community Justice Program (CJP), a partnership between Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Hidalgo and Cameron county bar associations, through an article in the Hidalgo County Bar Association newsletter. Modeled after the Community Justice Project in San Antonio, the TRLA program focuses on family law cases, helping those in need of divorces. Interested, Dominguez got involved and quickly became immersed in the world of legal aid. (He even served on TRLA’s board of directors from 1998 to 2002.) Dominguez says he was surprised by how easy it was to volunteer. “Volunteering for the Community Justice Program doesn’t take that much time,” he says, adding that TRLA screens cases and prepares divorce petitions before volunteers work on a case. “(TRLA) makes it as easy as possible for the volunteers.”

Last spring, the Texas House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Dominguez and his pro bono work. In May, the Hidalgo County Bar Association awarded Dominguez its John E. Cook Pro Bono Award. Dominguez says he’s surrounded by fellow lawyers deserving of the honor and is constantly amazed to see attorneys of all ages participate in the CJP. He hopes to see more attorneys step up to serve those in need. “I try to encourage others to participate in pro bono. In one way or another, you should just do something for somebody.” 

Pro Bono Profile: Jeffrey H. Kilgore of Galveston

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

As Texans living along the Gulf Coast can attest, hurricanes teach resourcefulness. For Galveston lawyer Jeff Kilgore, who was president of the Galveston County Bar Association when Hurricane Ike devastated the island, hurricanes can also impart lessons on how to resolve seemingly intractable legal disputes.

Kilgore, who has been practicing law for 35 years, is passionate about access to justice. He was instrumental in establishing the Galveston County Bar Association’s pro bono program and seeks constantly to persuade other lawyers to accept pro bono cases.

Kilgore is also passionate about mediation. A credentialed distinguished mediator, he has served multiple terms as president of the Mediators’ Association of Galveston County, is the current chair of the board of Galveston Mediation Services, and has been an officer of the State Bar Alternative Dispute Resolution Section.

When Hurricane Ike left Kilgore without an office, he made the most of the situation. Even though the hurricane had wreaked havoc on residents’ lives, he and other Galveston lawyers committed themselves to ensuring that residents’ legal needs were as unimpeded as possible. Kilgore spent countless hours coordinating with Lone Star Legal Aid, FEMA, and Galveston County Bar Association members to bring as much normalcy as possible.

He arranged to meet clients in coffee shops or gas stations that had withstood the storm. Out of necessity, he even volunteered to conduct a mediation in his car. While Kilgore’s generosity may be larger than life, his car is a Mini Cooper. When he pointed in the direction of his Mini, the two parties, who had been at each other’s throats, asked for a few moments alone. They quickly settled.

The State Bar of Texas Board of Directors recently passed a resolution honoring Kilgore for his tireless work on behalf of Galveston’s lawyers and residents following Hurricane Ike.  With humility and grace, he accepted it on behalf of all of Galveston’s lawyers.

 

Pro Bono Profile - Lan Nguyen of Houston

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Volunteerism is a family tradition, says Lan Nguyen. “Our parents serve, we serve, and our children will continue to serve since for each of us, a skill was endowed with an expressed obligation to serve.” For instance, shares Nguyen, her sons speak, read, and write five languages and can be found volunteering regularly as translators at several legal clinic workshops sponsored by the Houston Volunteers Lawyers Programs (HVLP).

Nguyen is committed to giving back to a community that gave so much to her family when they first arrived in the U.S. in 1975. “We immigrated to Fairhope, Alabama [from Vietnam] and people were generous with their attitudes and welcome,” says Nguyen, “that was enough to smooth our assimilation process and made that difficult period of our lives easier to handle.”

Many of Nguyen’s cases are handled with the HVLP, however she also handles cases for various local churches, temples and other non-profit groups.

Nguyen is also involved with the Vietnamese LegalLine which she founded in 2001 to help the public get simple legal advice and referrals to helpful resources. The program was established, says Nguyen, because although “Vietnamese immigrants have successfully assimilated into the general community, there are individuals who continue to struggle along the edges of the mainstream community because of the language or cultural barriers.”

Nguyen adds, “To this group of individuals the Vietnamese LegalLine was designed to assist, but to our pleasant delight we have reached more and more individuals even though they were not the ‘intended’ audience.”

Of her pro bono work, Nguyen says, “There are a lot of resources and help available when you are undertaking a pro bono case. Yes, it takes a little time, but the friendships that you make, the goodwill that you create, and the synergy that you contribute will last a lifetime. The returns are priceless.”

Pro Bono Profile: Jeffrey Stocks of Houston

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Jeffrey Stocks was reading an article about the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) in the October 2006 Texas Bar Journal and saw a list of upcoming training sessions. One was in Houston at the South Texas College of Law that December. He decided to attend. The next year, he took his first case for ProBAR, an asylum case involving a boy from Guatemala named Darwin (pictured with Stocks). Stocks won the case, earning the boy the opportunity to start anew in the United States.

Since then, Stocks has represented eight unaccompanied children in their asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile status cases (he’s working on cases seven and eight now). In doing so, he’s had to learn about the intricacies of immigration law and working with clients who have come from situations of domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and abandonment.

“These are all unaccompanied minors,” said Stocks, who is a graduate of South Texas College of Law and CEO and owner of Gen-Tech Construction in Houston. “Many do not have family here or any family at all. It takes a lot of gumption for these kids to leave their country at age 15 and come here.”

To handle ProBAR cases, he commutes to the Rio Grande Valley, where children who have made their way from Central and South America are detained at the border. “There is such a need for volunteer attorneys down there. It’s a more remote location, so they don’t have as many resources,” Stocks said.

The cases can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete, but the benefits more than make up for the long hours or commute time. “It’s very rewarding. I stay in touch with every one of [the children] and encourage them to pursue an education. Three from more recent cases were placed in long-term foster care here in Houston, so I get to see them more often.

“The older I get, the more this kind of work is so important to me. This is very compelling to me. This makes a difference. I’m happy to do it.”

Pro Bono Profile: Harold Graham of Pinehurst

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Harold Graham began his career as an engineer. He got a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Iowa State University, taught chemical engineering at Vanderbilt University, and did international work all over the world. Then many years later, Graham says, his daughter who is also an attorney, persuaded him to get a law degree. Graham began law school when he was 68 years old and graduated when he was 71 as the oldest person to ever graduate from South Texas College of Law in Houston.

In his first year of law school, he started working with Lone Star Legal Aid (LSLA) . He enjoyed the work so much that he stayed. “The people at LSLA are outstanding people,” Graham says. Graham helps LSLA with mediation, working on cases for Harris, Brazoria, and Montgomery counties. The matters range from civil and family law to child protective services mediation and foreclosures. He does about three or four pro bono cases a month for LSLA and about four or five pro bono cases a month for the Dispute Resolution Center of Harris County. Graham recently put together a website for LSLA and wrote the script for its upcoming interactive web application for online bankruptcy and foreclosure filings.

Graham does pro bono work because he has always been a “service-oriented person” and is always for “the underdog.” He has formed a non-profit called Resolution without Litigation which focuses on mediation, working with individuals, churches, and clubs. A couple of months ago, Graham says, he “got a call from a church that had fallen apart and was without a pastor.” They asked him to come up one weekend to Indiana to mediate for them. “Other churches have now used that church’s program as a model.”
 
Graham is a Korean War veteran. He has been married for 57 years and has three children, seven grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. At this point in his life at age 79, Graham says, “I can do whatever I want, and I’m enjoying doing it.”

PLI disclosure hearing report: Houston, October 16

Thirty-five people, almost all of whom were lawyers, attended a public hearing in Houston on whether attorneys should be required to disclose to clients whether they carry professional liability insurance. The Supreme Court of Texas has asked the State Bar Board of Directors to make a recommendation on the issue.

Ten attendees testified publicly. All expressed opposition to a disclosure requirement, with a few offering their preferences should such a policy take effect. An additional 17 attendees registered their opinions in writing. Fifteen of those expressed opposition to disclosure, with two indicating “No opinion.” No one offered support for disclosure, although State Bar President Roland Johnson, in the interest of fairness, read into the record from a task force report the primary arguments in support of disclosure.

Several State Bar directors were on hand, including Glenn Ballard, Tim Belton, Warren Cole, Bert Jennings, Bill Ogden, Tommy Proctor, and Travis Sales. Johnson moderated the discussion, which took place at South Texas College of Law. A digital recording of the hearing is available at www.texasbar.com/plidisclosure.

Among the points raised during public testimony:

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PLI disclosure hearing report: Harlingen, October 15

Four attorneys attended the second public hearing in Harlingen – all of them speaking against lawyers having to disclose whether or not they have professional liability insurance to prospective clients. One of those attorneys traveled three hours from San Antonio to testify after having surgery the day before preventing his attendance at the Wednesday hearing.

Testimony of those who attended included:

  • Professional Liability Insurance covers only negligence and the majority of times where a lawyer has hurt a client it is not negligence.
  • This discussion must be a special interest issue.
  • If a lawyer is going to have to disclose issues that might impact representation there are other things more germane than insurance (examples: health, financial status, personal problems) What is so special about insurance that it should be disclosed?
  • The American Bar Association is never happy with the status quo [so the adoption of a model rule by the House of Delegates might or might not have relevance].
  • What public policy does this proposed disclosure truly serve?
  • What harm has resulted in the past that has caused the Supreme Court of Texas to offer this proposal?
  • People do not enter into personal or business relationships thinking about future mishaps and this proposal would add that context to the front end of the attorney-client relationship.
  • This proposal, if implemented would make lawyers more vulnerable to being sued by clients unhappy with the result of a case.
  • Clients will be worried about representation but will not be better protected with this disclosure.
  • The public looks at the issue globally without information/knowledge about what professional liability insurance covers or does not cover.
  • What percentage of lawyers are sued annually? The grievance process exists to punish lawyers who do not live up to their professional obligations.
  • Insurance disclosure is a ticket to draw people in to sue attorneys.
  • After more than 19 years in consumer bankruptcy practice, had several complaints filed with the State Bar that were dismissed because there was no misconduct. Those complainants would have been more likely to file suit if I had insurance and there is a likelihood that I would have had to pay even though the complaints were baseless.
  • This is a non-issue. Attorneys are not required to have professional liability insurance and if a client asks, we are already obligated to provide that information.

(Visit www.texasbar.com/plidisclosure for more information and background on this issue as well as a calendar of upcoming hearings.)

Pro Bono Profile: Mandy Childs

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, the Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

When Mandy Childs was interviewing for an associate position at Jones Day, she wanted to get one thing straight. “I was looking for law firms that honored pro bono work,” Childs says. “One of the first questions I asked was, ‘What kind of pro bono initiatives do you have?’ ” Childs found her dream firm in Jones Day, which she says supports and encourages pro bono work. Jones Day, she says, treats all pro bono cases just as paid cases.

In fact, last year Childs was the firm’s first attorney to participate in the Lend-A-Lawyer program with the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, an experience she calls amazing. For three months, the firm “loaned” her to DVAP full-time while she still received her Jones Day salary and benefits. Her time in the program brought her the most rewarding case of her career: helping a mother reunite with her kidnapped son. She was so moved by the experience that she was compelled to help found her firm’s Associate Pro Bono Committee, which pairs associates with partners, to help DVAP staff emergency pro bono cases. “(Jones Day) was immediately on board to take these on,” she says.

Childs, who received her J.D. from Southern Methodist University, co-chairs the 2009–10 Ask-A-Lawyer Committee of the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers. Childs also volunteers as a crisis counselor at the Suicide and Crisis Center of Dallas. “I kind of feel I’m at my best when I’m helping someone who is in crisis,” Child says. “I feel like that is where I shine the most.”

Pro Bono Profile: Herb Everitt of Amarillo

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Herb Everitt strives to handle at least two to three legal aid cases a year. He says he learned in law school that there is a great need for pro bono lawyers. Everitt considers himself a service-oriented person and feels that pro bono is “what lawyers should do.”

Over the years, Everitt has handled numerous pro bono cases and served at many legal aid clinics. He also helps out through his own law practice, working pro bono for clients for whom he sees a need. Everitt served for three years on the board of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas (LANWT) in Amarillo, soliciting volunteer lawyers and raising funds for the clinics. He also volunteered at a legal aid office in Houston for about five years.

Over the past year, Everitt has been working with the LANWT teaching the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Legal Aid Divorce Clinic, which is held every three months and averages about 10-15 cases each. Volunteer attorneys walk clients through all of the court documents they will need for an uncontested divorce with no children. The goal of the clinic is to ensure clients they have appropriate paperwork when they go to court.

Everitt says he appreciates the State Bar’s Legal Services Fee (LSF) fund that helps raise money for legal services to the poor. Yet his belief is that “if every lawyer would do pro bono, there wouldn’t be a need for the fund.” Everitt also handles a lot of court-appointed criminal and family law cases. He feels that counties should require lawyers to do two pro bono cases in order to be eligible for court-appointed ones.
 

PLI disclosure hearing report: San Antonio, October 14

Of the approximately 60 people attending the first of seven State Bar of Texas public hearings regarding whether Texas attorneys should be required to disclose to the public whether or not they are covered by professional liability insurance, 21 lawyers testified against disclosure and one member of the public testified for “transparency” in all areas of the judicial system including disclosure.

The Supreme Court of Texas has asked the State Bar of Texas Board of Directors to give its recommendation on whether Texas attorneys should be required to disclose to the public whether or not they have professional liability insurance. The State Bar Board has developed a process for obtaining input from attorneys and the public, including a series of public hearings, which began in San Antonio Wednesday. State Bar directors will continue to collect information through their January 2010 board meeting where a vote will be taken with a final report prepared for the Court the first week of February.

State Bar directors at the hearing included Guy Choate of San Angelo; Lisa Tatum, Sylvia Cardona, Allen Dubois, Pamela Gilbert, and LaMont Jefferson of San Antonio; State Bar President Roland Johnson and President-elect Terry Tottenham also attended the hearing which was moderated by Jonathan Smaby, executive director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism.

State Bar President Roland Johnson opened the hearing with a short overview of the Professional Liability Disclosure Issue and the Court’s request of the State Bar Board of Directors. Directors listened to the testimony and made themselves available after the hearing and over the coming months leading up to the January vote.

A sample of the testimony received at the hearing against requiring disclosure included:

  • The legal profession should not be singled out as the only profession to be required to disclose whether or not practitioners have professional liability insurance.
  • The trust relationship between a lawyer and a client would be immediately compromised once the lawyer discloses whether or not he or she has professional liability insurance.
  • Each firm should be allowed to make the business decision of whether to carry or disclose professional liability insurance coverage on its own.
  • A lawyer’s report of coverage is a snapshot of a moment and does not guarantee he or she will have coverage at the time in the future when a suit might be filed.
  • The profession already polices itself. The Court and the Legislature have reduced the number of lawsuits so it is ironic that this proposal will increase the number of lawsuits.
  • Those practitioners who do wrong and do not follow the rules will continue to break the rules and adding more rules will not clean up that bad behavior by the few who disregard the current codes of good conduct.  If you want to require insurance, do so – but requiring disclosure will not solve any problem.
  • Requiring disclosure of professional liability insurance is a disincentive for lawyers to do pro bono work. Clients will not benefit from such a requirement and small firms will be especially targeted.
  • This proposed requirement would disproportionately impact minority attorneys as most minority lawyers in Texas practice in small firms or solo practices.
  • In Court appointments, the lawyer often meets the client after the appointment is made — the practicalities of implementing disclosure make it impossible.
  • There is a danger that this will become an issue of competence not an issue of insurability. 
  • Consumers are smart and know what they want and what they need. The relationship between an attorney and a client is sacrosanct and forcing the disclosure of whether or not an attorney has insurance on the front end of that relationship plants a seed of doubt.
  • Attorneys take self-regulation seriously and our disciplinary system is real and effective. We do not need an insurance company to be part of that process.
  • How ironic to purport to solve a non-existent problem while simultaneously contaminating the lifeblood of pro bono.
  • Creates same problem of confusing the public that the Bar resolved several years ago when it eliminated the “not board certified” requirement from lawyer advertising.

(Visit www.texasbar.com/plidisclosure for more information and background on this issue as well as a calendar of upcoming hearings. A downloadable audio file of the San Antonio is posted on this page.)
 

Pro Bono Profile: Sharon Steckler of Rosenberg

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

For family lawyers, “attorney and counselor” requires an emphasis on “counselor,” a role that Sharon Steckler relishes. In her pro bono work this often means giving clients the sense that they deserve better than an abusive relationship.

“Some of them are so beaten down by the abuse that they have no self esteem, so you try to raise them up,” said Steckler.

Steckler recently closed her private practice but is far from retired in any sense. She is an active volunteer with Fort Bend Lawyers Care (FBLC), where she serves as treasurer, answers calls on its LegalLine, and works at the Women’s Legal Forum to counsel battered women on their legal issues and rights.

Steckler also handles complex pro bono cases for FBLC. One of the most rewarding, she recalls, involved a young Nigerian woman whose abusive husband withheld support for her immigration to the United States as a way of controlling her. With Steckler’s help the woman was able to live on her own. The woman’s mother was so appreciative that she made Steckler a Nigerian tribal dress. “I truly treasure that,” said Steckler.

The return she receives from pro bono work is more often not material, but just as gratifying. “The best feeling, particularly with cases that involve spousal or child abuse, is having truly helped someone who without your efforts would be facing a very unfortunate situation,” she said.

Steckler’s outlet from the difficult issues of family law is serving as a judge in dog shows around the country and the world – she was recently invited to judge a show in Australia in 2011. She judges boxers and Doberman pinschers in junior showmanship and serves as treasurer of the American Boxer Club and legal counsel to the American Boxer Charitable Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to researching health issues affecting boxers. “It’s fun,” says Steckler. “A real change of pace.”

Pro Bono Profile: David E. Grove of Beaumont

David E. GroveThe National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

For Beaumont sole practitioner David E. Grove, pro bono work makes up an important part of his practice. He’s volunteered with the Jefferson County Bar Association Foundation’s Pro Bono Program for more than nine years, and this year, the foundation recognized his efforts by presenting him with the Mickey Mehaffy Pro Bono Attorney of the Year award.

His practice focuses mainly on criminal defense along with some family law and mediation work. He usually maintains four to five pro bono cases at a time and sees the work as an opportunity to expand his legal knowledge into new areas as the need arises, just as he did when he first started taking family law pro bono cases.

“Before I was doing more family law [in his practice], pro bono cases gave me a way to do things I hadn’t done before,” Grove said.

Balancing his regular caseload with the pro bono work can be a challenge but Grove seems to take it in stride. “It’s definitely something you have to try to work around,” he said, adding that pro bono cases are like everything else. “Some cases take longer to get through. You just have to balance it.”

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Ike, Grove and other Jefferson County-area attorneys focused on helping people affected by the natural disasters. The hurricanes provided particular challenges to completing cases, though, due to people being dislocated because of the storms. “It can make it difficult to finalize a case if you can’t find the person.” But the storms also provided opportunities to help in unexpected ways. “We found out that many disaster first responders in our area didn’t have wills, so we had several lawyers doing wills for them.”

It’s this chance to give back to the community that means so much to Grove. “A lot of times the only things people hear about lawyers are the bad things, but there are many things lawyers do to give back to the community. With pro bono work, we just have to keep doing it. The more people you can get involved, the better it’s going to be.”

 

 

Pro Bono Profile: L. Clifford Davis of Fort Worth

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

In 1949, when L. Clifford Davis started practicing law, the minimum wage was $0.40 an hour. For much of Davis’ career, his hourly rate has been even lower.

Davis, 84, has had a storied legal career. As a young lawyer, he worked with Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Putting into practice what he learned from the future Supreme Court justice, Davis was integral to the integration of the Mansfield and Fort Worth independent school districts. For two decades, he was a district judge on the Tarrant County bench. Among the honors and awards that have sought to pay tribute to Davis' accomplishments is the L. Clifford Davis Elementary School in Fort Worth.

Today, Davis, who serves of counsel to Johnson, Vaughn & Heiskell in Fort Worth, continues to help those in need. He volunteers with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas and the NAACP Justice Project and assists old friends when they need a hand.

“I’ve known a lot of people around here for a long time,” he said. "If I can help them out, I help them out. If they can pay something, that’s good. If not, I’ll do it anyway.”

Davis tries to minimize work that may land him in court. "At my age, I don't want to take on any lengthy litigation because I always want my work to be up to my standards," he said.

Where does he find motivation? “The community has been good to me,” Davis said. “I've been able to make a living and I’ve been supported for public office. I’m basically trying to give back.”

Surveying the legal landscape, Davis is pleased with how the commitment to pro bono work has evolved. “Pro bono has become a much more acceptable part of the practice of law, especially at large law firms. Almost every lawyer at some point will do some kind of pro bono work. It’s a great idea and a great service.”

After 60 years as a lawyer, Davis has no plans to let up. “I have a little saying: 'Never stop because it’s hard to get started.' " 

 

 

Sign Up Fund has an extra $6K for sign-language costs

For the past two years, the Disability Issues Committee of the State Bar of Texas has sponsored the Sign Up Fund, which helps attorneys, nonprofits, and bar associations cover sign-language interpreting costs incurred while representing individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The Texas Bar Foundation provided monies for the fund, which started with $20,000. According to committee chair Rosa E. Torres, the fund ended this summer but still has $6,000 to disburse. If you could use this funding, please click here for details and contact information.

Pro Bono Profile: Geoffrey N. Courtney

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, the Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

When a Roman Catholic bishop tells you to do something and you’re a young Irish Catholic, you do it. So when Bishop John McCarthy told a young University of Texas law student by the name of Geoffrey Courtney to do pro bono work, Courtney did it. All joking aside, Courtney, an attorney in Clemens & Spencer, P.C. in San Antonio, says McCarthy played a pivotal role in his legal career. McCarthy, he says, led by example. “Bishop McCarthy is totally committed to issues that make a difference in the lives of real people. He understands how a little bit of help can make such a dramatic difference in a person’s life.”

Taking the lead from McCarthy, Courtney takes on five to six pro bono cases at any given time. Most of Courtney’s pro bono cases focus on civil rights and disabilities issues. Courtney approaches pro bono work not as an obligation, but as a challenge and says he has fun working on the cases. “It’s an opportunity to get into an area of the law that you might not otherwise practice in and help make a situation right, or at least better than it was.”

Courtney sits on the board of several public interest organizations, but he’s never strayed far from where his pro bono work started. He has served for more than 10 years as director of legal services for the Diocesan Law Project, founded by Bishop McCarthy in 1990.

The modest Courtney credits his pro bono work not only to McCarthy’s influence, but to the support he receives from his firm. “It’s important to have a firm that believes in the issue, and I am lucky to have partners that appreciate that work.”

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Pro Bono Profile: Raquel West of Beaumont

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Raquel West is chair of the Jefferson County Bar Association (JCBA) Family Law Section and a solo practitioner. She does pro bono work through the JCBA and Lone Star Legal Aid, the agencies through which pro bono in her area are coordinated. West has never turned down a pro bono case.

West tries to always have one complex pro bono case or several non-complex pro bono cases, so she usually has at least two or three active pro bono cases at a time. Cases include divorces, custody, and protective orders. West is currently working on a national adoption day case, in which a grandmother wants to adopt her grandchildren in coordination with the National Adoption Day ceremonies.

West says she does pro bono because, throughout her years as an attorney, when she goes to court she sees how difficult it is for someone without an attorney to represent themselves. She sees an unfairness and imbalance in that. “Everyone needs representation,” West says. Many times these people are not involved in criminal cases, so they do not qualify for a court-appointed attorney.

West gets great satisfaction in helping pro bono clients because she sees how much they truly appreciate being helped. “It is very rewarding,” says West. Currently, West is working with a ”repeat customer” who still qualifies for legal aid and needed additional help so she came back to request West’s help. West said she finds it extremely rewarding that the client wanted to keep her as her pro bono attorney.

Pro Bono Profile - Ryan Solis of McAllen

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Once a week, Ryan Solis travels from McAllen to Raymondville to a small office he set up to do pro bono work and meets with as many people as he can in one evening. The cases typically deal with civil litigation, personal injury, commercial disputes and more recently divorce. Solis offers services in Spanish and says that about a third of his cases are with Spanish speaking clients.

Originally from Raymondville, Solis chooses to do pro bono work for residents of Willacy County because growing up there he knew families and friends who lacked the means by which to obtain legal aid. “I saw first hand the urgency and also the lack of resources for legal assistance,” said Solis.

Solis finds it rewarding to help people who are not familiar with the legal system and help put things in perspective for them. There are times when Solis sees a client on more than one occasion. “The people I help may need assistance with a will and then return because they need help with a real estate matter,” said Solis.

When asked what motivates him to do pro bono work Solis said, “It may sound cliché but it’s rewarding in and of itself. I enjoy helping people.” People, he says, who would otherwise not have access to legal aid.

Solis makes his home in McAllen but has a private law practice, Law Office of Ryan C. Solis, in Edinburg. He established his law practice almost a year after graduating from St. Mary’s University School of Law in 2005.

Outside of his practice and pro bono work, Solis is involved with Friends for Hope which is an organization in the upper Rio Grande Valley that raises funds for the Vannie E. Cook Cancer Clinic. He also enjoys spending time in the outdoors with his wife, Rebecca, also an attorney, his sons Tyler, 10 and Asa, 4 and daughter Helena, 20 months. One of his outdoor activities is coaching Asa’s soccer team. “I’m enjoying that very much,” says Solis of his coaching duties, “even though there are times when the boys are interested in everything but what’s going on in the game.”

Pro Bono Profile: Judge Migdalia Lopez of Brownsville

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Judge Migdalia Lopez of the 197th District Court of  Cameron County has done pro bono work since she began practicing law. Lopez, who has a masters in social work, says the need is always there so it is part of her everyday routine. She was appointed to the Texas Access to Justice Commission (TATJC) from 2004-2007 because of her pro bono work.

Helping children is Judge Lopez’s passion. She is a past chair of the Juvenile Dept. in Cameron County and a former member of the school board. The Governor’s Office recently appointed her to a term on the Juvenile Probation Commission. Lopez believes that more resources should go toward helping juveniles, and that to prevent crime, the starting point is in helping them. Lopez related that she once took three juveniles with her to Corpus Christi to participate in a triathlon, so that they could see that they could accomplish something and be proud of the work they did – and they were.
 
Judge Lopez related that the local legal community is committed to those in need. She often asks local bar associations and individual attorneys for help with pro bono cases, and always gets a great response. She also hears a lot of foreclosure cases, and asks attorneys to help out in cases where she sees a real need.

Lopez is one of the judges for the Cameron County pro bono divorce clinic. They just started their first clinic in Willacy County recently, and she is the only judge for that clinic. The clinics in Willacy are held every third month, and they have 10 to 15 cases every clinic. She says there is a “great need” for pro bono there, and the clinic makes the handling of the cases more efficient.

Pro Bono Profile: Jeff Actkinson of Farwell

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Jeff Actkinson
had no idea he would return to his hometown to practice law. But as soon as he joined Aldridge, Aycock, Actkinson & Rutter, L.L.P., he knew exactly what was expected of him — to represent the legal needs of anyone who walked through the door.

Farwell (pop. 1,364) is an agricultural community on the Texas-New Mexico border.  It is equidistant from the Plainview and Amarillo offices of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, each of which is 80 miles away. “We take everything they send us,” Actkinson said.

The firm’s commitment to pro bono started with the brothers who founded the firm 70 years ago. It became further ingrained under the leadership of Actkinson’s father, Johnny, and Charles Aycock, a former president of the State Bar of Texas.

For Jeff Actkinson, the firm’s youngest partner, accepting pro bono and reduced-fee cases has always been a way of life. Asked to name his most memorable pro bono case, Actkinson paused. “They’re all people who need help and they all need the same amount of help,” he said.

In January, Actkinson began serving as Parmer County Attorney, a position Aycock once held, in addition to his general practice, which consists primarily of real estate, personal injury, and agricultural law. 

Actkinson attended Texas Tech University for both undergraduate and law school. When he sat down with his father to discuss the offers he had received, his father asked if he had considered his firm and if he’d be interested in talking with the partners.

“Dad certainly didn’t put any pressure on me,” Actkinson said. “I didn’t even know it was an option.” Actkinson and his wife, Robbie, who also grew up in Farwell, considered what life would be like in the big city. “Coming home is absolutely the best thing we could have done,” he said.

Pro Bono Profile: Phil Phillips of Arlington

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Phil Phillips got his start in pro bono work before he was even an attorney. Thirty years ago, as a third-year law student, Phillips went to his local bar association and got his first taste of the real world through pro bono cases. Now, Phil takes about six pro bono family law cases a year, in addition to preparing qualified domestic relation orders (QDROs) for clients of the Law Clinic at Texas Wesleyan School of Law.

Phillips, who’s considered an expert on QDROs in Tarrant County, says he appreciates the pro bono cases that he handles, because unlike some of the cases he handles in his regular practice at the Law Office of Cochran & Phillips in Arlington, his pro bono cases are simple and mostly uncontested.

Phillips, who served on the board of West Texas Legal Services Corp. from 1986 to 1990, says pro bono cases help keep him grounded. “I did get kind of tired of knocked-out, dragged-out custody cases,” he says. “Pro bono work and doing QDROs helped me cope.”

Just as Phillips got a jumpstart on his legal career through pro bono work, he says more law students should take advantage of the opportunities pro bono can provide them. “Too many people are getting out of law school and don’t have the skills and experience that it takes to practice law. But there are a lot of things that law students can do to help licensed attorneys who want to provide legal aid to the poor.” 

Pro Bono Profile: Lisa L. Taylor of Harlingen

The National Pro Bono Celebration is Oct. 25 to 31, 2009. Each weekday in October, Texas Bar Blog will feature a Texas attorney who provides pro bono services in the community. Without lawyers like these, too many of our most vulnerable citizens would go without legal representation. For more on the national celebration, visit CelebrateProBono.org.

Pro bono work is “life-changing” for clients, says Lisa L. Taylor, a director on the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) board and past president of the Cameron County Bar Association (CCBA). Lisa became interested in doing pro bono work after finding that the need for decent pro bono service in the Rio Grande Valley was “unfathomable,” especially with the Valley’s proximity to the border of Mexico. She participated in a Community Justice Program (CJP) in Bexar County and liked it. So she helped the Cameron County Bar Association with the founding of their CJP in 2005. The CJP is a night court where attorneys, judges, and other legal professionals come together to help indigent persons with pro bono divorces. The program has handled hundreds of uncontested divorces since its creation.

Before the CJP, according to Taylor, the pro bono program in Cameron County was ineffective. One person was in charge, and there was no screening process. “We were lucky if we got 10 to 15 pro bono cases in a year,” she said. Without a screening process, there were numerous problems and more refusals to clients seeking pro bono. The Cameron County CJP fills the need for help with divorce cases, which TRLA is unable to cover, because it handles mostly emergency and violence-related cases.

The Cameron County CJP is volunteer-only with no funding. The Cameron County Bar Association coordinates groups of volunteers for the clinics. Taylor and her CJP colleagues also ask law firms to participate in certain clinics and provide initial training and mentoring needed for attorney volunteers. The CJP clinics are run by TRLA and the CCBA in the UT-Brownsville building, and they meet every other month, with rotating judges overseeing the clinics. The CJP holds 5 sessions a year and an average of 10-15 cases per session. It recently expanded to Hidalgo and Willacy counties.

Taylor is a former member of the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section council and was on the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section’s Practice Manual and Legislative committees. She received an award for distinguished service, the Cameron County Bar Association Paula Waddle Distinguished Service Award for 2008-2009.

Taylor appreciates being in a position to help and do pro bono work and says the best thing about it is helping clients and encouraging other lawyers to do more pro bono, whether it is volunteering more through the CJP, doing pro bono through their own practices, or spreading the word to other attorneys to do more pro bono.

This month in the Texas Bar Journal

most links below point to PDF files

Transition to Practice — Read about the State Bar's new mentoring initiative for local bar associations. Also included is best practice advice from Texas lawyers for changing times.

Transition from Transitive — Robert Fugate advises translating Latin phrases as part of an article on defining terms of art in legal writing.

Seizing Life — Plano lawyer Jeff Bray recounts his battle with cancer and the life lessons he's learned in "Don't Assume You Have Tomorrow to Get the Big Things Done."

Profiles — Texas lawyers take their passions seriously, as you'll see from stories about Hans Heppe, who has helped create a German-immersion school in Dallas, and Roberta Shaffer, who has been appointed Law Librarian of Congress.