Pro Bono College members, Champion of Justice law firms honored at reception

The Texas Access to Justice Commission kicked off Pro Bono Week on Monday with a reception honoring law firms and individual attorneys that support access to justice efforts in Texas. 

Gov. Rick Perry and the Supreme Court of Texas both issued proclamations designating this week as Pro Bono Week in Texas. The commission’s annual reception, held at the law firm of Vinson & Elkins in Austin, started off the week by celebrating the supporters of the commission’s Access to Justice Campaign, as well as those who support access to justice throughout the year by providing pro bono legal services.

“Every person deserves access to the courts,” said Jenny Smith, the Texas Young Lawyers Association liaison to the commission. “If we as lawyers don’t provide that, no one will.”

 

Peggy Montgomery, former general counsel to ExxonMobil and sustaining member of the Champion of Justice Society, added, “Attorneys need to commit with their time, but it is just as important that they commit with their money.”

Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman presented awards to the Pro Bono College 20-year members and Champion of Justice law firms, noting that while some 5.6 million Texans qualify for legal aid, existing programs are only able to meet the needs of one in five low-income Texans.

20-year Pro Bono College honorees

David Lee Spiller of Spiller & Spiller in Jacksboro and Terry Lynn Velligan of Houston were honored for 20-year membership in the Pro Bono College. The college recognizes attorneys who have provided more than 75 hours of pro bono service every year, which far exceeds the State Bar of Texas’s aspirational pro bono goal of 50 hours.

Champion of Justice law firm awards

This year’s Access to Justice Campaign has raised more than $1,146,000 from more than 8,270 attorneys across the state. Awards were presented to 16 Champions of Justice law firms.

Firms recognized for raising the highest dollar amount were Vinson & Elkins, Norton Rose Fulbright, Andrews Kurth, Baker Botts, Kelly Hart & Hallman, and Jackson Walker, with honorable mentions for Locke Lord, Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
Firms receiving awards for achieving 100 percent participation were Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta; Beirne, Maynard & Parsons; Davidson Troilo Ream & Garza; Naman Howell Smith & Lee; Nathan Sommers Jacobs; and Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason, with Vinson & Elkins receiving an honorable mention.
 

 

Justice Guzman appointed new Texas Supreme Court liaison to Texas Access to Justice Commission, Foundation

Justice Eva M. Guzman has been appointed liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Commission and the foundation that supports the commission’s work to provide civil legal services to the poor. Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht, who had been liaison to the commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation since 2010, announced Justice Guzman’s new assignment. Her appointment took effect July 1.

“I found in taking responsibility for access-to-justice issues that you must be a champion for them, in public, in the Legislature, in Washington, and among Texas lawyers,” Hecht said in a statement. “I believe we have found that champion in Justice Guzman. As a practitioner and as a trial judge, she confronted the real need of people who require legal help but in far too many cases cannot afford it.”

The Court created the Access to Justice Commission in 2001 to coordinate legal-aid provision in the state. The foundation was created in 1984.

For more information, visit http://www.texasatj.org/. Read the full press release.

Family Eldercare's Larson honored with 2014 Boots on the Ground Award

Austin attorney Christine P. “Chris” Larson is the 2014 recipient of the James B. Sales Boots on the Ground Award. 

The annual award, which recognizes exemplary pro bono or legal services program attorneys, was presented May 13 in Austin during the 2014 Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans. The Texas Access to Justice Commission hosts the event, which is cosponsored by the State Bar of Texas. 

“I’m obviously honored by this award and grateful that the commission values all that is involved in working with a population that cannot speak for itself,” said Larson, the director of guardianship estate services at Austin’s Family Eldercare, which provides essential services to seniors, adults with disabilities, and caregivers. “I love what I do and the clients I have the opportunity to advocate for. I work with an incredible group of people at Family Eldercare who are just as passionate as I am for the work we do.” 

Larson oversees the organization’s estate services program, which provides legal protections to indigent, severely disabled, ill, or cognitively impaired individuals who are not able to meet their own financial, medical, and legal affairs and do not have family or friends to take on that role. Under her leadership, the program has grown substantially, added staff, and is able to serve dozens of additional low-income clients.

Larson began her career as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas, where she worked primarily on family law, domestic violence, and custody cases representing low-income families and senior citizens. Being in private practice for more than 20 years allowed her to specialize in estate planning, probate, guardianship, elder law, and family law, and she also served as an attorney ad litem in legal aid cases.

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and its co-sponsor, the State Bar of Texas, honored veterans throughout the state at the gala, which raised $348,450. Proceeds will be distributed by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and dedicated to the provision of civil legal services for low-income Texas veterans. These services assist in addressing legal issues related to marital problems, difficulties in getting medical or disability benefits, wrongful foreclosures, and other situations that may arise due to a veteran’s absence during military service. 

Local bar associations, other groups recognized for improving access to legal services

Local bar associations, young lawyer associations, and State Bar of Texas sections were recognized for their commitment to pro bono service and access-to-justice issues during the State Bar’s annual Local Bar Leaders Conference.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht presented the Pro Bono Service and Deborah G. Hankinson awards on behalf of the Texas Access to Justice Commission on July 27 at the Westin Galleria in Houston.

The Pro Bono Service Award recognizes State Bar of Texas sections and local bar organizations that create self-sustaining pro bono projects that motivate lawyers from specialized practice areas to provide pro bono legal assistance directly to poor Texans.

The following 2013 Pro Bono Service Award winners received a certificate of recognition and $1,000 to reinvest in their programs:

Small Sections or Bars (fewer than 500 members)
The Hays County Bar Association, for its Pro Bono Divorce Clinic, which provides pro bono representation for low-income Texans filing for divorce in Hays County
The Austin Lawyers Guild, for its School to Prison Pipeline Pro Bono Referral Program, which provides pro bono representation to students facing Class C misdemeanors for minor disciplinary infractions

Medium Sections or Bars (501 to 2,000 members)
The Jefferson County Bar Association, for its Veterans Initiative, which provides pro bono legal advice and representation to veterans in Jefferson, Chambers, Hardin, Liberty, and Orange counties

Large Sections or Bars (more than 2,001 members)
The State Bar of Texas Computer and Technology Section, for its mobile applications for legal services attorneys, which provide free access to state-of-the-art technology so legal aid attorneys can more efficiently serve indigent clients’ needs
The Houston Bar Association, for its Veterans Legal Initiative, which provides pro bono legal advice and representation to veterans in the Harris County area

The Hankinson award honors local bar and young lawyer associations that demonstrate a commitment to access to justice in their communities and to raising financial support for legal service providers, both locally and statewide.

The 2013 Hankinson award winners are as follows:

Division I Bar Association (fewer than 500 members)
The Smith County Bar Association, for its pro bono programs, including Settlement Week, a twice-yearly event where association members volunteer to serve as mediators to help litigants settle cases

Division II Bar Association (501 to 900 members)
The El Paso Bar Association, for its commitment to equal access to justice for the El Paso community. The association organizes the El Paso Lawyers for Patriots Free Legal Clinic and the Access to Justice Legal Fair to provide pro bono legal services and help connect community members with legal aid organizations.

Division III Bar Associations (901 to 5,000 members)
The San Antonio Bar Association, for its fundraising activities, which provided more than $105,000 for the San Antonio Bar Association’s Community Justice Program last year

Division IV Bar Association (more than 5,001 members)
The Houston Bar Association, for its Houston Volunteer Lawyers program, which offers weekly pro bono legal clinics for veterans and regular legal clinics for domestic violence victims

Young Lawyers Association
The Austin Young Lawyers Association, for increasing awareness of access-to-justice issues and providing pro bono legal aid services through programs such as the Permanency Project, which pairs volunteer attorneys with foster children

 

Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation announce possible remedies for the legal aid funding shortfall creating risks for low-income Texans and the state

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation hosted a news conference yesterday at the Texas State Capitol to emphasize the ongoing funding crisis in the Texas legal aid system. At the conference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, the Court’s liaison to access to justice issues, announced a comprehensive legislative plan to address the funding crisis. In addition, a new economic impact study by The Perryman Group was announced.

Texas Legal Aid Funding

The continued rise in poverty, combined with a slow recovery of the national economy, has vastly increased the number of low-income Texans in need of free civil legal services. Currently, 5.7 million Texans qualify for legal aid for help with issues such as benefits for veterans, health care for the elderly, domestic violence and foreclosures.

Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) is a significant funding source for legal aid services in Texas, but those funds have decreased significantly due to historically low interest rates. IOLTA revenue for legal aid has dramatically declined from $20 million in 2007 to a projected $4.4 million for 2012. This decline in funding harmfully affects legal aid programs throughout the state.

“Helping struggling Texans with civil legal needs not only improves their lives and their families’ lives, it is a boost to the entire state as well,” Justice Hecht said. “Ensuring that Texans have access to justice allows them to be self-sufficient and ultimately lessens the need for taxpayer support.”

One legal aid lawyer is available for approximately every 11,512 Texans who qualify. To be eligible for legal aid, an individual must earn no more than $14,363 a year. For a family of four, the household income cannot exceed $29,438. 

Legislative Remedies Proposed

Several bills are expected to be filed this session that will help address the funding shortfall. The House and Senate budget bills (HB 1 and SB 1) as introduced include $13 million for legal aid in the Texas Supreme Court budget. The Texas Supreme Court requested an exceptional item that restores $4.6 million in general revenue back to the 2012-13 budget level of $17.5 million.

In addition, Senator Robert Duncan and Representative Senfronia Thompson have filed companion bills in the House and Senate (HB 1445 and SB 635) that would increase the funds dedicated to legal aid for indigent Texans from civil penalties and civil restitution recovered by the Attorney General. Senator John Carona is co-author of SB 635 and Representatives Sarah Davis, John Davis and Sylvester Turner are co-authors of HB 1445.

“The success of our civil justice system depends on the ability of all types of citizens to access our courts," Sen. Duncan said. "Civil legal aid provides significant services to veterans, women, children and the disabled and that is why I am proud to sponsor SB 635."

Rep. Senfronia Thompson noted, “Legal aid often means the difference between life and death, living in a home or on the streets, being self-sufficient or needing to rely on governmental agencies. HB 1445 is urgently needed to help address this critical funding shortfall.”

“Providing access to justice is a cornerstone of our democracy, and I am proud to play a leadership role in this effort,” Rep. Sarah Davis said. 

Findings from Economic Impact Report by The Perryman Group

A study to determine the economic impact of the legal aid delivery system in Texas was commissioned by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, and findings were announced today. The study was conducted by Dr. Ray Perryman of The Perryman Group. 

The study examined the economic impact of legal aid currently being provided as well as the potential effect of expanding funding for legal aid. Currently, legal aid services lead to a sizeable stimulus to the Texas economy. The estimated gain in business activity equals an annual $722.4 million in spending, $346.9 million in output (total value of goods and services produced) and 4,528 jobs.

For every dollar spent in the state for indigent civil legal services, the overall annual gains to the economy are estimated at $7.48 in total spending, $3.59 in output (total value of goods and services produced) and $2.22 in personal income. This activity generates about $47.5 million in yearly fiscal revenues to state and local government entities.

There is a large unmet need for legal aid, and increased funding (and, thus assistance) would lead to further gains in business activity in addition to the other social benefits of more equitable access.

A copy of the full economic impact report from The Perryman Group is available at the Texas Access to Justice Foundation website.

ATJ Commission Co-hosts Inaugural Charity Golf Classic

The Texas General Counsel Forum and the Texas Access to Justice Commission are hosting an Inaugural Charity Golf Classic benefitting the Texas Access to Justice Commission. The tournament will be held on Thursday, Nov, 8, 2012 at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort.

The tournament is limited to just 144 players, and there are multiple sponsorship opportunities — at least 67 to be specific, ranging from as low as $200 to be a Hole-Sign Sponsor and as high as $7,500 to be a Presenting Sponsor.

For more information, visit http://www.tgcf.org/attachments/files/3473/2012%20Charity%20Golf%20Tounament-AW_revised.pdf.

Bar Associations Honored with Hankinson Awards

The Texas Access to Justice Commission's Pro Bono Service Awards and Deborah G. Hankinson Access to Justice Awards were presented at the Bar Leaders Conference in Houston on July 14, 2012. These awards honor the local bar associations and Texas Young Lawyers Association (TYLA) affiliates whose attorneys contributed at the highest rates through annual State Bar dues to the Access to Justice (ATJ) Campaign.

Each year, Texas attorneys choose to contribute to the Access to Justice (ATJ) Campaign through their annual State Bar dues statements. All funds generated by the campaign are earmarked for civil legal aid. The donations of Texas lawyers play a vital role in the effort to meet the critical legal needs of poor and low-income Texans in civil matters.

This year's Hankinson awards were presented to:
• Austin Bar Association — Large City Bar Association (This is the ninth year in a row the Austin Bar has received this award.)
• Austin Young Lawyers Association — Large City TYLA affiliate
• Midland County Bar Association — Small City Bar Association
• Midland County Young Lawyers Association — Small City TYLA affiliate

Named for former Supreme Court of Texas Justice Deborah G. Hankinson, an outstanding advocate of access to justice, the awards are meant to encourage competition between local bar associations and TYLA affiliates in the ATJ Campaign.

The Pro Bono Service Award are designed to recognize organizations that have created self-sustaining pro bono projects that motivate lawyers to provide pro bono legal assistance to poor Texans.

This year's Pro Bono Service Awards were presented to:
• State Bar Family Law Section — Large Category recipient
• Houston Bar Foundation — Large Category recipient
• El Paso Bar Association — Medium Category recipient

More than 6.1 million Texans currently qualify for civil legal aid. However, due to a lack of resources, only about 20 to 25 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income and poor Texans are being met. To be eligible for civil legal aid, an individual must earn no more than $13,963 a year. For a family of four, the household income cannot exceed $28,813. The Texas Access to Justice Commission works to increase resources for legal aid and encourages the pro bono involvement of Texas lawyers in its efforts to expand access to justice.

Texas Senator Kirk Watson to receive Texas Access to Justice Legislative Hero Award

Senator Kirk Watson Named “Legislative Hero” for Improving Access to Justice to the More Than Six Million Texans Who Qualify for Legal Aid

AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation will honor Senator Kirk Watson with the Texas Access to Justice Legislative Hero Award for his contributions to improving access to justice in Texas during a special presentation in Austin on Friday, December 16. Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, the Court’s liaison for access to justice issues, will present the award to Senator Watson.

Senator Watson has a long history of supporting civil legal aid issues, including efforts that led to an historic appropriation of funding in the 81st Legislature for civil legal services to poor Texans. Through his leadership efforts, Watson has helped improve access to justice for poor and low-income Texans.

“Senator Watson’s support in the Legislature helps many struggling Texans with basic civil legal services, such as benefits for veterans, foreclosures, health care for the elderly and domestic violence,” Justice Hecht said. “At a time of dwindling resources, we are grateful for the support as we continue to provide Texans in need access to justice.”

"I'm honored to receive this recognition from the Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation," said Senator Watson.  "For years, I've worked to assure legal services for the most vulnerable in our community.  We must do more to help them navigate the justice system.  I am proud to support this work in the Texas Senate."

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Foundation launched the Legislative Hero Award program in 2010 to recognize legislators who, through their efforts, have significantly advanced access to justice in Texas by assisting with the appropriation of funds and/or other substantive activities related to the provision of legal aid in the state.

Senator Watson serves on the Senate committees overseeing Business and Commerce, Economic Development, Nominations, and Higher Education. He is also vice chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security. He currently serves as the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Senator Watson represents District 14, which covers most of Travis County. Before being elected to the Senate in 2006, he was mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001.

Senator Watson is a partner with Brown McCarroll, L.L.P., working as a lawyer and public affairs consultant. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Baylor University and graduated first in his class at Baylor Law School. Senator Watson has been named "Rookie of the Year" and one of the state's “10 Best Legislators” by Texas Monthly. Among many other accolades, he was also named outstanding young alumnus of Baylor, Outstanding Young Lawyer of Texas and Austinite of the Year. Watson is a former president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, presided as chair of the State Bar Committee on Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters, and served on the State Bar of Texas Executive Committee.

Legal aid organizations funded by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation help more than 120,000 low-income Texas families each year with their civil legal needs. Yet, for every person who is helped with legal aid, a qualifying Texan is denied assistance due to a lack of resources. Currently, only one legal aid lawyer is available to provide assistance for every 11,152 Texans who qualify.

Law Students selected for Texas Access to Justice Commission internships

Texas Access to Justice Commission Logo

Fourteen law students from around the country have been selected to participate in the Access to Justice Summer Internship Program sponsored by the Texas Access to Justice Commission, in partnership with six Texas legal aid providers. The program encourages students to help address the civil legal problems of underserved individuals and communities, and to educate future attorneys about those problems.

The Access to Justice Internship Program provides a unique opportunity for law students to participate in an internship with nonprofit providers of civil legal services located in areas without a local law school. The program particularly benefits rural and underserved parts of Texas that receive much needed help in the delivery of legal aid for low-income Texans.

Students Selected to Participate in Program

The students, their law school, and the legal aid organization where they will be interning are as follows:

  • Lee Roy Calderon, Baylor Law School, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Edinburg
  • Brittany Cravens, Baylor Law School, Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, Waxahachie
  • Brittany Wray, Baylor Law School, Lone Star Legal Aid, Angleton
  • Wendi Whipkey, Florida Coastal School of Law, Lone Star Legal Aid, Nacogdoches
  • Erin Kee, South Texas College of Law, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Eagle Pass
  • Jason Garcia, Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Corpus Christi
  • Colleen Lowry, Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Weslaco
  • Markita Samuel, Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, El Paso
  • Vanessa Smithwick, Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Corpus Christi
  • James Palomo, Texas Tech University School of Law, Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, Plainview
  • Paul G. Thomas III, University of Houston Law Center, Lone Star Legal Aid, Galveston
  • Nakis Urfi, University of Houston Law Center, Lone Star Legal Aid, Nacogdoches
  • April Kirkendall, University of Nebraska College of Law, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Laredo
  • Adriana Bole, University of Texas School of Law, Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project, El Paso
About the Internships

Each law student will receive hands-on training by working with accomplished lawyers and providing direct legal services to low-income clients, while learning about access to justice matters, legal decision-making, advocacy skills, attorney-client relationships and legal institutions. A supervising attorney will provide the law student with a variety of experiences and assignments, including significant research and writing.

The internships are open to law school students attending law school throughout the country. A stipend is provided to each student to help defray living expenses, and students must commit to a 10-week placement.

About the Texas Access to Justice Commission

The Supreme Court of Texas created the Texas Access to Justice Commission in 2001 to increase services for people who need legal help but may not be able to afford it or find it. The Commission’s goals include reducing barriers to the justice system and increasing resources and funding for legal aid.

One legal aid lawyer is available for approximately every 10,838 Texans who qualify. To be eligible for legal aid, an individual must earn no more than $13,613 a year. For a family of four, the household income cannot exceed $27,938.

For more information, please visit www.TexasATJ.org.

Next Texas Legislative Hero Award will go to Texas Senator Steve Ogden

The next Texas Access to Justice Legislative Hero Award will be awarded to Texas Senator Steve Ogden during a special ceremony on Friday, September 24, at 1 p.m. at the Lone Star Legal Aid office in Bryan, Texas.

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation Legislative Hero Award recognizes legislators who have significantly advanced access to justice in Texas by assisting with the appropriation of funds and/or other substantive activities related to the provision of legal aid in the state.

Steve Ogden is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and served three terms in the Texas House of Representatives before he was elected Senator for District 5.

Texas Representative Receives First Texas Access to Justice Legislative Hero Award

The Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation honored the first recipient of the Texas Access to Justice Legislative Hero Award, Texas House Representative Pete P. Gallego, for his contributions to improving access to justice in Texas. He received the award on July 17 at a special presentation at the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid office in Alpine, Texas.

With more than 5.3 million Texans qualifying for legal aid, the Texas Access to Justice Commission and Texas Access to Justice Foundation launched the Legislative Hero Award program in 2010 to recognize legislators who, through their efforts, have significantly advanced access to justice in Texas by assisting with the appropriation of funds and/or other substantive activities related to the provision of legal aid in the state.

As a leader in the House of Representatives on access to justice issues, including last session’s general appropriation of more than $20 million for civil legal services, Gallego has been an advocate for underserved areas throughout the state including those with vulnerable populations and remote locations. Gallego's efforts helped ensure that basic legal services are available in rural and remote areas of the state, including Alpine, where people would otherwise have to travel great distances to access those services.

Gallego is the first Hispanic to represent District 74. He was elected in 1990 to represent the largest House district and the largest Texas U.S.-Mexico border district covering nearly 39,000 square miles. Gallego has served on the Texas Access to Justice Foundation board of directors since 1996.

Texas Access to Justice Commission to hold Gala for Veterans

The Texas Access to Justice Commission is holding a gala next month to raise funds for the provision of civil legal services for veterans. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation will distribute these funds to programs providing civil legal services for veterans in Texas.

The Champions of Justice Gala for Veterans will be held on May 4, 2010 at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center in Austin. Individual tickets are available, and sponsorships to reserve tables are also available at different levels. For more information, to download a packet, or to sponsor or donate online, please visit http://www.texasatj.org/gala.

Strong named general counsel of A&M System

On Friday, March 27, the Texas A&M University Board of Regents selected Andrew Strong as general counsel of the Texas A&M System. As general counsel he'll be responsible for all legal matters affecting the system and provide legal counsel to A&M's board of regents, chancellor, and CEOs.

Strong is a partner in the Houston office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, which he joined in 2005 after serving as the managing partner of Campbell, George & Strong since 1994. At A&M Strong replaces former general counsel Jay Kimbrough, who now works in the governor's office. According to an article in the Bryan College Station Eagle, details of Strong's starting date as general counsel are being worked out.

Strong is a former president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association and currently servces as chair of the State Bar of Texas Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee, co-chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission's Civil Gideon Task Force, and chair of the Children at Risk's Public Policy and Law Center.