by Jerry Alexander
Last month’s Headnotes headlined the great news that Alicia Hernandez has been named the next Executive Director of the Dallas Bar Association to succeed Cathy Maher upon Cathy’s retirement at the end of this year. The article talked about all of the things that Alicia had planned for next year and all of the great experience she would bring to the job.
Nestled in the longest paragraph in the article is a single sentence that merits its own “article” in this column. The quote reads, “She has served as the Director of DVAP, which has grown to a $1 million program under her leadership.” The quote does not point out that she grew this program from a “seedling” to an oak that raised $1 million per year and provides 10 times that in value every year in legal services for the poor.
The great news about filling the new Dallas Bar Association’s Executive Director position is that it is going to be filled by Alicia Hernandez. The downside in that news is Alicia has to find someone to fill her shoes as Director of DVAP. These “shoes” are more like seven league boots! The overall challenges for DVAP are ever growing.
Because of changes in the County’s demographics over the past decade and a half, the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program has not only become one of the most important things the Dallas Bar Association does, it may have become the most important thing we do. It is certainly the most important thing we do insofar as community outreach is concerned.
You see, there are presently 611,168 people (25 percent of the Dallas County population) living in Dallas County who qualify for legal aid. That is over 2-1/2 times the number reported a mere decade and a half ago in the year 2000. To qualify for legal aid, an individual must not have income of more than $14,850 per year. A family of four must not have income of more than $30,375 per year. There are an additional 423,276 people in Dallas County who fall within Legal Aid’s eligibility guidelines who could potentially qualify for legal aid services after review of their expenses such as rent or mortgage payments and child care.
These are staggeringly large and intimidating numbers, but there are some silver linings in them.
First of all, thankfully, all of these people do not need legal services, and the ones that do, do not all need them at the same time. Last year, through DVAP and its amazing staff, Dallas Bar Association volunteers donated 23,620 hours of recorded pro bono service through the program. DVAP volunteers complement the services of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas’ (LANWT) staff attorneys. Together they handle a large number of domestic violence, landlord tenant, veterans, benefits, foreclosure, probate, and re-entry issues that provide immediate and emergency services to clients that help protect their safety and well-being.
We all know that many lawyers donate many hours per year outside of the program also. A total of 5,973 people were helped with their legal problems in 2015 by the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program and 3,871 people were helped by LANWT. (Many others were helped with free legal advice from the DBA’s Legallines and, again, from many practicing attorneys and DBA members who volunteered outside of the program.)
Obviously, other methods need to be used to keep up with this ever increasing demand. Every day over 100 people show up at the George Allen Courthouse looking for justice primarily in matters dealing with family law issues, but other issues as well. They come to the Courthouse because they do not know where else to go, how to get a lawyer, or how the legal system works from the standpoint of what it can and cannot do. The good news is these people are coming to the Courthouse for redress of their grievances and justice, and are not taking matters into their own hands or taking them to the streets. Societally, it is extraordinarily important—maybe the most important thing we do—that people like this not be turned away when they seek justice at the courthouse since this is their entrée into our legal culture. We are still one of the few countries that is a nation of laws with a functioning legal system.
I was privileged to attend a meeting in late August of a very special group of people looking for additional ways to work on this problem. In the Strasburger Room of the Belo Mansion, people holding the following offices were assembled all discussing what could be offered to meet these needs. The Dallas County Judge and other representatives of Dallas County were there, the President of the State Bar of Texas was there, the Dean of the University of North Texas College of Law at Dallas was there, the head of the SMU Dedman School of Law Family Law Clinic was there, Alicia Hernandez as head of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program was there, as was the President, Chair of the Board, and various committee heads of the Dallas Bar Association.
This same group of people will meet again this month to continue their work, and after hearing the sincerity and competence of all those present, I am convinced that good solutions and programs will be conceived and implemented, many of them on a trial basis, to see how best to address the delivery of legal services in civil matters to people who cannot afford them, but who really need them.
More great news is that DVAP’s Equal Access to Justice Campaign is off to a wonderful start! In addition to our growing list of donors, we hosted an EAJ Happy Hour Kickoff on September 8. Thanks to the hard work of Campaign Co-Chairs Karen McCloud and David Kent, the event brought together an amazing group of Corporate Counsel attorneys who volunteered their time as “celebrity bartenders,” helping to raise money for DVAP. The evening’s event raised almost $13,000 in less than two hours thanks to the help of these folks: David McAttee, AT&T, Inc. & Honorary Chair, 2017 EAJ Campaign; James Bristow, Enlink Midstream; Clarence Brown, III, Contran Corporation; Larry Foust, Children’s Health System of Texas; John Greco, One Technologies, LLC; Paul Kirkpatrick, Commercial Metals Company; Kath Kotel, TGI Friday; Paul Leslie, Parkland Health & Hospital System; Tom Mielke, Kimberly-Clark; Bhaveeni Parmar, Ziosk; Tracy Preston, The Neiman Marcus Group, Inc.; Carey O’Connor, Flowserve Corporation; Julia Simon, Mary Kay Inc.; Cynthia Sutherland, Pepsico; and Cynthia Trochu, Texas Instruments Incorporated.
The new Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program Director not only has big shoes to fill, but an ever growing challenge to meet. The really good news there is that not only will Alicia Hernandez, essentially the godmother of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, be primarily responsible for hiring that new Director, she will also be at the helm of the Dallas Bar Association to assist that new Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program Director in moving forward.
Our contributions to the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, both financially and in volunteer hours, are now more important than ever.
Our members’ generosity in both respects may be the most important thing we do.
See you at the Belo!