Dallas Bar Association

Vision, Leadership & Committment to Access to Justice

by Alicia Hernandez

Most attorneys believe in the concept that the justice system should be open to all people. No one should be barred from seeking redress from the courts. Everyone’s voice should have the opportunity to be heard. Impartial jurists and juries of peers should make thoughtful decisions based on fairness and the rule of law. This is, after all, America.

But the road to the courthouse is perilous. It is oftentimes a slow and unsteady journey. Deadlines and details run rampant. Obstacles are thrown in the path. Laws and procedures are not clear. Courthouses are intimidating and seemingly impervious structures of brick and mortar, flesh and blood to be respected, entrusted, and feared.

Attorneys are professionals, but they have families to support, bills to pay, and have not gone unscathed by the tough economic times. And even the most reasonable legal fees are insurmountable to significant numbers of people.

For those who cannot afford the journey through the legal process, they simply do not go. Their rights are not protected. They never have an opportunity to have wrongs remedied. Those who have preyed on them proceed unchecked and unhindered on to the next victim.

And, then, we have the leaders. These are the people with vision, generous hearts, and compassion. Their strong beliefs in the justice system lead them to make the road to the courthouse a reality for those who otherwise would only see it as a dream.

Andy Payneand Jim Mitchell, of Payne Mitchell Law Group LLP, are two of those leaders. Plaintiff’s attorneys in their private practices, they understand real world problems of ordinary people. They have stood up to the challenge by making a $25,000 kickoff donation to the 2012 Equal Access to Justice Campaign benefitting the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program. Andy Payne and Jim Mitchell have donated $101,750 to the campaign since 2007.

Because of their generosity, the troubles of DVAP’s clients, ordinary people simply trying to raise families, work for a living, and contribute to society as best they can, are able to open the courthouse doors and be given the equal access promised to them. In their cases, child support is established, access and visitation to children is respected, unscrupulous landlords are punished, and homes are saved from wrongful foreclosure. This is all done through their support of the hard work of volunteer attorneys who use their time and talents doing only what lawyers can do—keep the justice system alive and accessible to others.

Justice Deborah Hankinson, of Hankinson Levinger LLP, is another one of these leaders. As a former Justice on the Texas Supreme Court, she worked tirelessly on a statewide and national level to champion the cause of legal aid to the poor. Justice Hankinson is, again, leading by example by making a kickoff donation to the Equal Access to Justice Campaign of $25,000. A donor since 2003, Justice Hankinson has donated $191,000 to the campaign over the years.

Because of her deep commitment to the issue of equal access to justice, Justice Hankinson was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, which works to ensure that low-income Texans have access to justice in civil legal matters. She has been instrumental in obtaining millions of dollars in funding for legal aid to crime victims. And, she has been a constant and true friend of the Equal Access to Justice Campaign.

AT&T has also stepped forward to support the 2012 Campaign with a $15,000 donation to the Campaign. The AT&T Legal Department, under the leadership of Wayne Watts, has also developed its pro bono contribution. AT&T in-house attorneys staff legal clinics and represent pro bono clients. They are setting the bar for all in-house lawyers in Dallas.

The law firm of KoonsFuller, led by CEO and Managing Partner Ike Vanden Eykel, has also made a kickoff donation to the 2012 Campaign of $10,000. KoonsFuller is one of the original donors to the campaign in 1994, and the firm has donated $252,500 since then. The attorneys of KoonsFuller, a family law firm, have also played an important role in mentoring and training volunteer attorneys as well as representing pro bono clients. Through their contributions, DVAP has been able to provide many pro bono clients with the same caliber of service that KoonsFuller clients would receive.

Mike McKool, of McKool Smith, also kicked off this year’s campaign with a $10,000 gift. Mr. McKool, Founder and Chairman of McKool Smith, has donated to the campaign since it started in 1994. His total contribution to the Equal Access to Justice Campaign is $192,800.

The generous and thoughtful donations of our Campaign kickoff leaders will make an important contribution to DVAP’s ability to provide access to justice to the poor in Dallas during the coming year. DVAP has a tough order to fill. Twenty-five percent of the Dallas County population or 611,168 people qualify for free legal aid from DVAP. This number has grown two and a half times over the last decade. There are an additional 423,276 people in Dallas County who fall within DVAP’s eligibility guidelines and could potentially qualify for legal help after a review of expenses such as rent or mortgage payments and child care. To qualify for legal help, an individual must not have income of more than $13,612 per year, and a family of four must not have income of more than $27,938 per year.

The Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program is about helping ordinary people with real world problems and making the dream of access to justice a reality. Andy Payne, Jim Mitchell, Justice Deborah Hankinson, the AT&T Legal Department, KoonsFuller and Mike McKool are leading our charge of helping poor Americans seek justice under law.

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.

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

Back to top