Texas access to justice leaders marked the start of the weeklong National Pro Bono Celebration on Monday with tributes and awards to attorneys, legislators, and organizations that make legal aid a central part of their work.
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation presented the awards during a luncheon with the Texas Supreme Court in Austin. The event coincides with national pro bono week (Oct. 19-25), an American Bar Association initiative to highlight the need to protect and expand access to justice through volunteer civil legal services.
Attorneys provide more than 2 million hours of free legal or indirect services to low-income Texans each year, the equivalent of about $500 million, according to the University of North Texas Survey Research Center. But for every 11,000 Texans who qualify for legal aid, there is only one legal aid lawyer, according to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. The luncheon honored those who are working to address that need.
Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, who returned to private practice in 2013, received an inaugural award named in his honor.
Jefferson, a vocal advocate for pro bono, designated funds remaining in his officeholder account for access to justice, said Justice Eva Guzman, the court’s access to justice liaison. In presenting the award to Jefferson, Guzman announced the creation of the Legacy Challenge: Reserves to Preserve Justice campaign, which will encourage other public officials to designate funds left in their officeholder accounts to benefit pro bono efforts.
Other award winners appear below.
- Former Sen. Robert Duncan and Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Sarah Davis received Legislative Hero Awards for their work in the Texas Legislature to advance access to justice.
- The State Bar of Texas received the Harold F. Kleinman Award for its work in helping to create the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and its continued support of access to justice efforts. State Bar President Trey Apffel, President-elect Allan DuBois, and Executive Director Michelle Hunter accepted the award.
- The State Bar’s Construction Law Section received the Access to Justice Award for its continued financial support. Since 2007, the section has donated $245,000 to the foundation to support civil legal services.
- Independent Bank, PlainsCapital Bank, and Preston State Bank received the Prime Partners in Justice Award for being prime partner banks who provide extraordinary interest rates through the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program.
The luncheon also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the state’s leading funder of legal aid. The Supreme Court created the foundation in 1984 to administer the then-new IOLTA program. Since that time, the foundation has awarded more than $410 million in grants to organizations throughout the state that provide civil legal aid to the poor.
In a keynote speech, Austin attorney William O. Whitehurst, who served as State Bar president in 1986-1987, praised the court and the foundation for creating a national model for supporting access to justice: “It has led the way for us all and has done it hands-on.”
Pictured: Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, right, accepts the inaugural Wallace B. Jefferson Award from Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht and Justice Eva Guzman on Monday during a Texas Access to Justice Foundation luncheon in Austin.