DVAP Celebrates 30 Years
The Inky Blue Water
by Will Pryor
This story has been told about a million times, but it bears repeating. I remember the call like it was yesterday, even though it was almost 30 years ago. Chained to my workstation at my big law firm, Merrill Hartman called. “Will, I’m going to roll over to the Bethlehem Center (low-income daycare center in South Dallas) next Tuesday night to talk to anyone who needs to talk to a lawyer.”
Receiving calls in the middle of a busy workday from Merrill was an experience I know was shared by many. On this day when he called, I said, “Can I come with you?” I remember the moment, even though in the moment, there was not a blessed thing that seemed the least bit remarkable.
This is the call from Merrill that changed my life, and I think, to a lesser degree, my response changed his.
The Executive Director of the Bethlehem Center was aware of Chris Reed-Brown at North Central Texas Legal Services, and her pro bono duties, and he thought she might be a good resource for us. So during the preparation phase we had lunch with Chris and Brenda Freeman.
Zero, I mean z-e-r-o, thought and even less experience went into this endeavor. We seriously thought that all we were going to do was show up at this neighborhood center every Tuesday night with notepads and dispense legal advice. We never thought about whether we would actually take cases. There was no “after this clinic we’ll start another one in East Dallas, then another one in West Dallas and we’ll get awards. There will be articles written and videos made, law firms will start to compete over which one is providing the most pro bono services, and bar associations all over the country will try to copy what we are doing but none will ever be as successful. And thousands and thousands of poor people will receive help and thousands of lawyers, judges, paralegals and court reporters will experience something really meaningful, and . . .”
Nope. As crazy as it sounds, it was pure. It was “legal pad in one hand, pen in the other.” No one would ever know about it. I have described for you, in its entirety, the thinking that went into what would become the most successfulpro bonoproject in the history of ever. I am in no way exaggerating how modest we thought our plan was. You couldn’t even call it a “plan.”
We went over there the first couple of times—Merrill and I would sit at little folding tables and interview people who showed up. Chris would do “intake,” get each person to fill out a form and line them up. The first night we had one person with a high-weeds citation and another person with a traffic ticket. Not exactly what we were expecting, but then, we had no idea what to expect.
After a couple of weeks, a wonderful man named Jerry Lastelick, then the president of the Dallas Bar Association, put this mention in a monthly DBA newsletter: “Kudos to Merrill Hartman and Will Pryor, two fine lawyers who are volunteering their time for a pro bono project in South Dallas. If you would like to help Merrill and Will, their phone numbers are . . .”
The next Tuesday night Merrill and I are rolling (yep, in the big Suburban) over to the Bethlehem Center and he says, “Hey, did you see we got a mention in the DBA newsletter? And I got a call from a woman lawyer and she is going to meet us tonight.”
A few minutes later we arrived, and I met Ellen Smith. I had Merrill to thank for so many gifts over so many years, but none more remarkable than the fact that he is responsible for me meeting the love of my life.
A couple of weeks later Bill Grabinski, an in-house lawyer at LTV showed up. So the “South Dallas Legal Clinic” was now four lawyers. As time went by, our numbers continued to grow, as did the number of clients from the neighborhood as word began to spread in South Dallas about these lawyers on Tuesday nights where if you just show up they will talk to you. Over the next few years, Merrill and I became a traveling recruiting show, speaking to dozens of groups. This was his speech (I heard it so many times, this is pretty much memorized):
“My law practice was going really well, and I had all the toys I wanted, but then one day I had to fly down to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to represent a client who was the subject of a grand jury investigation. One evening, after we were done for the day, I took a walk along a beautiful, white, sandy beach, and looked out over the inky-blue water, and I was just really, really full of myself. I thought, ‘I must be really great if I now have clients who have the money to fly me to Puerto Rico for such an important matter.’ And then I turned, and in a single moment I was confronted with the most unimaginable poverty of a beach slum. And in that moment, I was convicted. And I immediately began searching my soul and spent months trying to figure out what I should do. I knew that I had been sent to Puerto Rico for a reason that had nothing to do with my client or a grand jury. For months I thought the thing that I should do is move my family to Puerto Rico and get to work on that slum!”
For months that really was what he was thinking! Then he would go on, in his remarks, to mention the Samaritans project at his church. Eventually he would get around to describing the inspiration he had to give away his time and talent as a lawyer, and his fateful phone call to me.
Then it would be my turn, and I would ramble on about what a great experience pro bono service could be for a young lawyer, and then I would add this zinger: “Join a legal clinic and meet the love of your life!” I described the social and romantic possibilities as being endless. It always got a laugh.
Then Merrill became a judge, had the inspiration to take his court to the clinics, and then I became a judge and our recruiting included another zinger: “Join a legal clinic and become a judge!” Together we were really something.
Merrill drilled into me his theology of “obedience in the presence moment.” So all along the trophies, the articles, the accolades, they never meant that much to him, or to me. It always seemed to us that all we had done, and all we were doing, is what we were supposed to do. It was all about obedience. It was amazing.
Will Pryor is an attorney at Dispute Resolution, Mediation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.