by Michelle Alden
For Aubrey Connatser, being a lawyer is a privilege that she feels compelled to pay forward. “I’ve been fortunate,” Aubrey says. “I’m duty-bound to give back to the legal profession. My parents instilled that in me.”
In the past five years, Aubrey and husband Adam Connatser have given more than $180,000 to support DVAP, through both the Equal Access to Justice Campaign and the DVAP Endowment. Last year’s endowment contribution was given in memory of Ken Fuller, who mentored Aubrey in her early career and was DVAP’s most consistent volunteer after he retired from full-time practice.
Aubrey and Adam generously contributed $30,000 to this year’s Equal Access to Justice Campaign. The Equal Access to Justice Campaign is the annual fundraising campaign which supports the activities of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP). The Connatsers’ gift makes it possible for DVAP to continue to provide and enhance legal aid to the poor in Dallas, keeping the doors to the courthouse and our overall justice system open to many more people in our community. Since 1982, DVAP has recruited and trained pro bono lawyers to provide free legal aid to the poor in Dallas. Last year, a 16-member staff supported over 3,000 volunteers in their efforts to volunteer at legal clinics, advise, and represent clients.
Aubrey has more than 15 years’ experience as an attorney after graduating from the University of Texas Law School. She had more than a decade of experience with a large family law firm before she opened Connatser Family Law in July of 2013. The firm has grown its attorney roster to eight full-time family lawyers—a combination of youthful litigators and wily veterans who work together and separately depending on the demands of the case.
Aubrey credits her background with helping her realize the value of programs such as DVAP. “My grandfather had an 8th grade education and operated a dragline for a living,” she says. “My grandmother had a 6th grade education and raised seven children. My mom was the only one of the seven children who graduated from college—and ended up getting a PhD in Educational Psychology and teaching for 45 years. If it wasn’t for my parents’ commitment to education, I could easily be one of the many Dallas residents in need of DVAP’s services.”
DVAP works to solve the problem of access to justice in Dallas County every day. In a country based on justice for all and access to our court system, over 25 percent of Dallas County residents live near the poverty level, and 42 percent have slim hope of being able to afford an attorney. With annual poverty incomes of $31,375 for a family of four, justice is a luxury for low and moderate income families. As Aubrey stated, “The question shouldn’t be, ‘how much justice can you afford?’ Justice should be available to everyone.”
The value of pro bono work lies not only in helping low-income people access the courts, but it also provides an unparalleled training opportunity for young lawyers to learn their craft. In addition, the gratitude of the pro bono clients is a welcome benefit. Aubrey encourages all new associates at Connatser Family Law to volunteer for DVAP, so they can learn the value of helping people through the family court system as well as gaining experience in the courtroom.
Many volunteers attest to similar pro bono experiences, which is why DVAP’s tagline, “pro bono: it’s like billable hours for your soul,” resonates with so many attorneys, paralegals, law students, judges, clerks, and others who donate their time.
While Aubrey Connatser provides a shining example, the commitment of Dallas attorneys and the DBA overall to the Equal Access to Justice Campaign is impressive. Since 1997, the DBA and Legal Aid have joined forces to raise money for the program, with Dallas lawyers donating almost $13 million.
DVAP is a joint pro bono program of the DBA and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. The program is the only one of its kind in Texas and brings together the volunteer resources of a major metropolitan bar association with the legal aid expertise of the largest and oldest civil legal aid program in North Texas. For more information, or to donate, visit www.dallasvolunteerattorneyprogram.org.
In further equal access to justice news, the State Bar of Texas has instituted a New Opportunities Volunteer Attorney (NOVA) Pro Bono Program, which will allow attorneys in good standing who are inactive or licensed in another jurisdiction to do pro bono legal work with an approved legal service organization, such as DVAP. These attorneys will not be required to be admitted pro hac vice to appear before a court while providing legal services through the program. This new NOVA Rule will help more DVAP applicants have access to pro bono legal services in Dallas County.
Michelle Alden is the Director of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program. She can be reached at email@example.com.