by Alicia Hernandez
Twenty years ago this month, the Dallas Bar Association (DBA) and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT) merged their previously separate pro bono programs to create the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP).
Back then, both programs were recruiting the same volunteers, serving the same clients, and struggling to keep their heads above water. The “alliance” as it was then called was an opportunity to create a unique partnership between one of the most successful bar associations in the country with the public interest expertise of our local legal aid program. The goals were simple—to help people, to help more people, and to do it well.
In 1997, we were a staff of seven when the merger occurred, and we struggled. We had our long-standing Neighborhood Clinics in place, but they were not staffed with volunteers. We had fledgling pro se programs that were in desperate need of fine-tuning. And we hosted just a couple CLE programs to recruit and train our volunteers. Over the first couple years, we launched into recruiting mode and were thrilled to staff, almost completely, all Neighborhood Clinics with volunteers! We created our night court for our clients, which is still in existence today. And we launched a series of training programs at law firms, featuring one of our most committed supporters, the late Judge Merrill Hartman.
Since then, the program has continued to grow and change. We have mentor attorneys who support volunteers in their efforts to provide pro bono help to our clients. We have Wills Clinics to help people prepare for the future, Expunction Clinics to help people move on with their lives, Veteran’s Clinics to serve those who have served us, and Small Business Clinics to help people pursue their dreams. We have an average of 2,500 ongoing cases in the hands of volunteer attorneys at any given time. We host more than 30 CLE programs every year at Belo, law firms, and corporations. We partner with our sister bar associations and other non-profit organizations to support their efforts to serve the needs of people in our community.
We have tried to establish DVAP as our community’s pro bono program, belonging not only to the DBA and LANWT, not only to our volunteers and supporters, but to everyone in the Dallas area. In the spirit of our Neighborhood Legal Clinics established 33 years ago, DVAP is our “neighborhood’s” pro bono legal aid program—here in our community helping our neighbors in any way we can.
One of the results of the time and attention we have paid to DVAP and the pro bono relationships we have built with the legal community is our successful Equal Access to Justice fundraising campaign, which benefits the program. Our donors, like our volunteers (and many donors are also volunteers), are committed to our cause and committed to helping their neighbors here in the Dallas area, in the community where they live and work. They have stepped up to support their neighbors in need, and their donations are put to work here in Dallas, helping veterans obtain disability benefits, single parents get child support, victims of domestic violence move on with their lives, and more.
Our supporters know that the dollars donated here in Dallas help the homeless person they see on the streets, the less fortunate children in their churches and schools, the minimum wage workers who serve them at restaurants and grocery stores, and the housekeepers who work in their homes. These are our neighbors and our friends; this is our community.
Our EAJ donors are lifting us all up, accomplishing many things. They ease the burdens of our clients who are struggling with legal problems and have few places to turn. They increase access to our justice system through the advice, counsel, and representation. Their support reduces the chance that others will not have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, or safety from harm. Their support builds up the community, helping people accused of crimes gain employment, helping women with dreams of owning their own small businesses make it a reality, and assisting new homeowners with wills so they can plan for the future.
Our community is blessed with the volunteers and donors who have made DVAP what it is today.
AT&T is one of those supporters who is giving here, right here at home, to the Equal Access to Justice Campaign and DVAP. Attorneys and other legal professionals from AT&T’s legal department volunteer with the program, and AT&T has donated $25,000 to this year’s campaign. David McAtee, AT&T’s General Counsel, is serving as the 2017 EAJ Campaign’s Honorary Chair.
“I’ve had many blessings in my life, but one of them is being the son of a Dallas lawyer. In the 70s and 80s, I found myself kicking around downtown Dallas, running packages for Thompson & Knight in high school and watching the Dallas Bar from a distance. As a result, from an early age, I began to develop a vision of what it is like to be not only a lawyer, but to be a Dallas lawyer,” said McAtee.
“Being a Dallas lawyer is special. It means working hard for your clients and striving for absolute professionalism. It means giving back through pro bono service and community service. It starts here—working here, making a difference in our city—and supporting DVAP is a critical part of the equation. That’s why I’m honored to be part of this effort.”
Now, we look forward to the challenges ahead. How does DVAP continue to grow and serve more people? How does DVAP serve the large 600,000 person plus poverty population in Dallas? How do we serve the burgeoning number of pro se litigants seeking justice in Dallas County? How do we engage more attorneys to provide advice at clinics and represent clients in all types of cases? What new efforts should we explore and adopt? How can we use technology to achieve our mission? The challenges are great. How will we do this?
We will do it as a team—volunteers, donors, staff, the community. All of us are DVAP, and we are up to the challenge.
To volunteer, donate, or learn more about the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program and Equal Access to Justice Campaign, contact Alicia Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org or (214) 220-7499.
Alicia Hernandez is the Executive Director of the Dallas Bar Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.