Dallas Bar Association

Equal Access to Justice: Serving Others and Changing Lives

By Alicia Hernandez

Dallas Bar Association members have a long history of community service. We don our tool belts and raise our hammers to help build Habitat for Humanity houses. We collect school supplies for children who otherwise would have none. We donate to our local blood bank, teach DISD students and host various collection drives. All are worthy causes, and all have a positive impact on the lives of others and particularly those in need.

But there is one thing that Dallas Bar Association members do that “is the best thing we do as a collective group of lawyers, and may be the most important” said Rob Crain, Co-Chair of the 2011-12 Equal Access to Justice Campaign, benefitting the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP). This “best thing” is pro bono legal aid to the poor.

Some may question whether pro bono is the best thing we do. Pro bono clients are needy, have legal problems, and we lend a helping hand. The people who benefit from our other programs are also in great need, have problems, and, again, we lend a helping hand. The only difference is that attorneys, with their degrees, licenses, legal training and expertise, are the only people who can lend a helping hand when it comes to legal problems. They are the only people who can provide legal advice, sign a demand letter with the full force of “attorney at law” behind them, and represent clients in court. Helping people through the legal system is the sole domain of the lawyer.

At the Dallas Bar Association, “the best thing we do as a collective group of lawyers” is the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program. DVAP, a joint program of the Dallas Bar Association and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, coordinates the pro bono efforts of Dallas lawyers by recruiting, training, and mentoring pro bono lawyers, hosting legal clinics for low-income people and matching needy clients with pro bono attorneys who have volunteered to help.

To support this effort, the law firm of Crain Lewis, L.L.P. has donated a very generous gift of $30,000 to this year’s Equal Access to Justice Campaign.

Crain Lewis, L.L.P. partners Rob Crain, a personal injury lawyer, and Chris Lewis, a criminal defense lawyer, have one mission—to help people. “The constitution provides court appointed attorneys to poor people who cannot afford to hire a criminal defense attorney, and most plaintiffs’ work is handled on a contingency basis,” said Mr. Crain. “People with these types of cases have avenues for hiring lawyers even if they cannot afford one. But when it comes to a family law case, foreclosure or consumer matter, you are out of luck if you don’t have a nest egg to pay attorney’s fees.”

And that is where DVAP and the Equal Access to Justice Campaign step in. Crain Lewis’ $30,000 gift will make a difference in the lives of many clients in the coming year. Clients like John Davis.

John, like many people, turned to DVAP when he needed legal help. He ended up at DVAP’s South Dallas Legal Clinic after the mother of his child died and the child’s maternal grandmother sued him for custody. DVAP recruited Michael Wysocki of KoonsFuller to help.

Although they were no longer a couple, John and the terminally ill mother of his child had a good relationship. The mother and child had lived with the maternal grandmother. But, when the living arrangement became unhealthy for both of them, John welcomed mother and child into his home. He cared for both until the mother died, and he continued to raise his two-year-old daughter on his own. Unfortunately, the grandmother had other plans. She hired an attorney and filed a custody suit asking to be the managing conservator of the child even though she did not have standing to do so. John feared the worst—that he would lose custody of his little girl. And he almost did.

Mr. Wysocki represented John in family court and in the Court of Appeals. While the trial court granted the grandmother custody of the child, John and Mr. Wysocki were successful on appeal. The grandmother’s case was eventually dismissed freeing John to raise his daughter and move on with their lives.

Without pro bono legal help, John likely would have lost custody of his daughter. He would have been forced to represent himself, and his daughter would have been forced to live in an environment that was not in her best interests.

“John’s case is an example of the great work that volunteer attorneys do every day,” said Crain. “We have story after story of wonderful volunteers making a difference and changing the lives of their pro bono clients. DVAP’s mission is Crain Lewis’ mission—to help people. We are delighted to support our fellow attorneys in their efforts to seek justice for all.”

Whether by volunteering, donating to the cause, or both, please help. For more information on the Campaign or the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, please contact Alicia Hernandez at (214) 220-7499 or ahernandez@dallasbar.org. Recognition levels and donor benefits are available. In addition, all individual donors at the $1000 level and above and all firm and corporate donors at the $5,000 level and above will be recognized in an ad in the Dallas Morning News during the week of December 19, 2011, and in Texas Lawyer in January or February 2012.

*Note – The client’s name has been changed to protect his confidentiality.

Alicia Hernandez is the director of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program and the DBA director of community services. She can be reached at ahernandez@dallasbar.org.

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