The State Bar of Texas Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee has announced its 2021 Pro Bono Excellence awards winners.
Lynn Rodriguez, of Fort Worth, received the Frank J. Scurlock Award; Dana Karni, of Houston, received the J. Chrys Dougherty Award; Judge Gina Benavides, of the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi, received the Judge Merrill Hartman Award; Lone Star Legal Aid, of Houston, received the Pro Bono Award; Lena Engelage, of Conroe, received the Pro Bono Coordinator Award; Shana Mello, of Weatherford, received the Pro Bono Support Staff Award; and SMU Dedman School of Law’s COVID-19 Legal Helpline received the W. Frank Newton Award.
Frank J. Scurlock Award – Lynn Rodriguez
The Frank J. Scurlock Award honors an individual attorney, in good standing, who has provided outstanding pro bono work. Rodriguez represents low-income and no-income military veterans and guides her students at Texas A&M University School of Law in doing this work as well.
She is president of the Veterans Coalition of Tarrant County and serves on the boards of the Tarrant County Chapter of Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans and Tarrant County LegalLine.
J. Chrys Dougherty Award – Dana Karni
The J. Chrys Dougherty Award recognizes an outstanding legal services staff attorney. Karni created Eviction Right to Counsel in July 2020 and manages the program within Lone Star Legal Aid. The program focuses on eviction mitigation and prevention across the Houston area; through the program she has provided counsel to thousands of individuals across Harris County and Houston.
Judge Merrill Hartman Award – Justice Gina Benavides
The Judge Merrill Hartman Pro Bono Judge Award honors a judge, sitting or retired, who has provided exemplary pro bono service, including outreach to attorneys to increase the quantity and quality of pro bono representation; modifications to court processes to increase access to justice; advocacy on behalf of access to justice; or service as a volunteer judge for pro bono clinics or other pro bono proceedings.
As a board member of Texas Legal Services Center, Benavides has provided leadership to navigate the pandemic and the economic downturn that impacted a great portion of vulnerable clients. She serves on the Texas Access to Justice Commission’s Legislative Committee; having previously served on the commission’s board.
Pro Bono Award – Lone Star Legal Aid
The Pro Bono Award honors a volunteer attorney organization that has made an outstanding contribution toward guaranteeing access to the legal system by the poor. Due to COVID-19, Lone Star Legal Aid adjusted its programming to provide legal aid. Also of note, Lone Star Legal Aid launched a new school partnership program with Baylor Law School and St. Mary’s University School of Law that partners law students with practicing alumni.
Pro Bono Coordinator Award – Lena Engelage
The Pro Bono Coordinator Award is presented to an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to the delivery of, and access to legal services for the poor, while serving as the pro bono coordinator for a volunteer attorney organization or group, local bar association, law firm, law school, corporate legal office, governmental law department, or legal services organization. Engelage is pro bono litigation coordinator for the Lone Star Legal Aid—Conroe Office Pro Bono Team. In the wake of COVID-19, she worked to establish remote clinics to help service the 72 counties in Lone Star Legal Aid’s purview.
Pro Bono Support Staff Award – Shanna Mello
The Pro Bono Support Staff Award recognizes the outstanding and exemplary contributions of non-attorney volunteers, such as paralegals, administrative assistants, interpreters, and other support staff, who work on pro bono projects. Mello is a paralegal at Eggleston King and donates her time coordinating and leading a free Teen Court program in Parker County. Mello has donated her time to Parker County Teen Court for 10 years. She has been active in the State Bar of Texas Paralegal Division and led significant committees for 10 years.
W. Frank Newton Award – SMU Dedman School of Law COVID-19 Legal Helpline
The W. Frank Newton Award recognizes the pro bono contribution of attorney groups whose members have made an outstanding contribution in the provision of or access to legal services to the poor. In May 2020, SMU Dedman School of Law Professor Mary Spector acquired funding from outside agencies and through grants to fund the COVID-19 Legal Helpline Project. She worked with her colleagues to select and train 45 law students, assigning them shifts, and conducting troubleshooting along the way to get the program operational. The Helpline has received over 2,000 calls and 500 individual people have been served since June 2020. Approximately 2,200 hours were donated for the project.