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Those in the legal profession who consistently look beyond the bottom line to help people who can’t afford to pay for their services will be in the spotlight June 21 when the State Bar of Texas recognizes outstanding pro bono efforts for 2007. The State Bar’s Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee recommended four recipients � two individual attorneys, a firm and a legal organization � for this year’s pro bono and legal service awards. The Bar first recognized lawyers for pro bono work in 1980, with the presentation of the Frank J. Scurlock Award. The award is named for the late Frank J. Scurlock, who was known for his efforts to provide legal services to the poor and served as the first chairman of the Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee. Frank J. Scurlock Award Lan T. Nguyen Even as a teenager, when Lan T. Nguyen left war-torn Vietnam with her large family and fled to the United States, she knew her parents expected her to live her life as a charitable person. “It was expected you do good things for other people, rather than ourselves,” says Nguyen, who took the wishes of her parents to heart once she became a lawyer by devoting hundreds of hours a year to pro bono work. Nguyen says pro bono work is gratifying simply because “there are good people out there who need a hands-up.” Over the past two years, Nguyen handled 24 pro bono cases through the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program (HVLP), spending at least 240 hours on the work. She also spent another 360 hours mentoring other volunteer lawyers on 120 cases, devoted another 637 hours in volunteer and pro bono service to several Cambodian and Vietnamese organizations, and operated a monthly LegalLine radio program for Vietnamese-speaking people. For her extraordinary efforts, Nguyen is this year’s winner of the State Bar of Texas’ Frank J. Scurlock Award. The award honors an individual attorney who has done outstanding pro bono work by providing legal service to indigents. The Houston Bar Association nominated Nguyen, a partner in Houston’s Shortt & Nguyen. “She’s phenomenal,” says Glenn Ballard, the 2006-2007 president of the Houston Bar Association (HBA). “Not only does she do the pro bono cases herself, not only is she an equal-access-to-justice champion for the HBA, but she also translates legal handbooks into Vietnamese and does Vietnamese LegalLine, and she handles a lot of individual pro bono,” says Ballard, a partner in Bracewell & Giuliani in Houston. Nguyen founded the HBA’s Vietnamese LegalLine Program in 2001, in which she answers questions from callers for two hours a month. That was right up her alley: In 1996, she founded a radio program on Voice of Vietnam radio to educate Vietnamese-speaking people about the American legal system. She also translated several free legal handbooks, distributed by the HBA, into Vietnamese and worked with Texas Supreme Court Justice Harriet O’Neill in 2006 on the release of a Vietnamese version of the court’s Protective Order Kit. Nguyen, who does securities and commercial litigation, family law, probate and business organizations work, says she devotes about 20 percent of her time to pro bono work. She works long days at the office and at home, where she helps home school her three sons, who are learning to speak five languages. Her husband and partner, Bruce Shortt, says it’s a mystery to him how she does so much. “She manages to juggle an enormous number of things. How she keeps all the plates spinning, I don’t know. It is an amazing, impressive feat,” Shortt says. Shortt says his wife does so much pro bono partly because she’s a “soft touch.” But, he notes, “It’s partly because . . . she and the rest of her family immigrated at the time of the fall of Saigon and lived in relocation camps and were resettled here and resettled there and really had to begin at the very, very bottom and work their way up, so I think she has a great deal of empathy for those whom this system is foreign.” Nguyen came to the United States in 1975 along with her mother, four brothers and two sisters. They settled in Alabama, where Nguyen graduated from high school. In 1981, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. After her family moved to Houston, she earned a master’s degree in business administration and a law degree from the University of Houston. Nguyen met Shortt during the Texas bar exam in 1984, and they married in 1992. After living and working in New York, they moved back to Houston where they wanted to raise their family and opened Shortt & Nguyen in 1995. Nguyen says she is compelled to do pro bono work to repay society for the help her family received after they came to the United States in 1975. “I have been very, very blessed,” she says. Nguyen helped Kenneth Carnes, a retired truck driver in Houston, probate a will after the death of his wife in 2005. He says the HVLP referred him at first to a legal clinic, where volunteer lawyers helped him write a new will, and those lawyers referred him to Nguyen to guide him through probate court. Carnes says the probate was complicated, because his wife had sold a house shortly before her death, and the witnesses to paperwork weren’t licensed notaries. “She explained everything real good, no problem at all,” says Carnes, who is grateful for Nguyen’s pro bono assistance, because he is retired and living on a limited income. Before he turned to the HVLP for help, he called an attorney who quoted him a $1,200 fee to probate the will. “We need more lawyers like Ms. Nguyen. Some of the lawyers, they want a T-bone steak, and I can only give a hamburger,” Carnes says. Meng Ly, general secretary of the Wat Angkorchum Cambodian Buddhist Temple, says Nguyen, on a pro bono basis, helped a group of Cambodians successfully resolve some litigation related to construction of the temple in Houston. “She was very helpful, explained to us the legality of the whole situation, always informing us what’s coming and what to expect,” says Ly. According to the HBA’s nomination form, Nguyen has handled 35 cases for the HVLP since 1987, and she’s willing to take on tough cases such as complicated divorces. Groups related to the HBA also honored Nguyen for her pro bono work. In 2006, the Houston Bar Foundation gave Nguyen the Longevity of Exemplary Service Award for her efforts for the HVLP, and in 2007, the foundation gave her an award for Outstanding Individual Attorney Contribution to the HVLP during 2006. � Brenda Sapino Jeffreys Pro Bono Award Human Rights Initiative Volunteer Attorney Program John Guild, an associate with the Dallas office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, typically works on securities-related litigation and other commercial matters. Those cases, he says, often involve pivotal financial matters. But this past year, he worked on a case with the Dallas-based Human Rights Initiative Volunteer Attorney Program, a nonprofit group that will receive the State Bar of Texas Pro Bono and Legal Services Award for 2007. With his HRI case, Guild believes he saved a client’s life. “It was a unique experience,” he says. Guild’s client, a practicing Coptic Christian who had left his native Egypt to avoid persecution and the threat of murder by “Islamic fundamentalists,” had applied for asylum to establish legal residency in the United States, Guild says. He had done so without legal counsel, and federal immigration authorities had denied his asylum claim. But Guild, guided every step of the way by HRI staff members who have extensive immigration law experience, successfully persuaded a Dallas immigration court judge on May 18 that his client needed asylum. Guild’s client had been brutally attacked when he attended a university in Egypt. A year later, when his client set up a business, his client’s business partner was murdered, Guild says. Before the immigration judge, Guild argued that the Egyptian government would not provide relief to his client from his persecutors and that, because of his client’s religion, he could not live anywhere safely in his home country with the possible exception of a monastery. “It was an incredibly rewarding case,” says Guild. That’s exactly the kind of response from a pro bono lawyer that Betsy Healy wants to hear. Healy, co-founder of HRI and the chairwoman of the board of directors, initiated the Volunteer Attorney Program. A former associate with Cowles & Thompson, Healy left the firm to help establish HRI in 1999 along with social worker Serena Simmons Connelly, and Healy set up its Volunteer Attorney Program in 2000 so attorneys at large firms could work on asylum cases without feeling frustrated. More recently, she has extended the program to handle immigration cases of children and domestic abuse victims. Annually some 100 lawyers working pro bono handle 200 cases for HRI clients, who are referred to the nonprofit by the immigration courts as well as by other nonprofit organizations in the area. Gregory Lensing, senior counsel at Cowles & Thompson in Dallas, nominated the HRI program for the State Bar award. When Healy was at Cowles & Thompson defending mostly medical malpractice claims, she worked pro bono on an asylum case in U.S. District Court in Dallas. At the time, Healy remembers vividly her frustration trying to learn the Byzantine ways of immigration law without any guidance. She says she realized that asylum work was rewarding but she wanted to establish a way for other lawyers to work on the cases pro bono without feeling so inept. That objective led to the model for the HRI Volunteer Attorney Program. HRI staff members regularly provide tutorials on immigration law for lawyers by conducting seminars at firms’ offices. When lawyers volunteer, the HRI staff selects cases to fit with the experience of the volunteer lawyers. After a lawyer takes the case, the HRI staff offers the pro bono counsel guidance along the way, including helping them prepare witnesses for trial. In return, Healy says, firms in the Dallas area have exceeded her expectations in terms of what they provide to HRI clients. For example, volunteer attorneys go the extra mile, she says, by taking indigent clients out to dinner or driving them to court appointments. Firm lawyers also have access to resources that HRI needs but could never afford, such as the ability to find and make contact with international experts and tools for gathering evidence overseas. “The lawyers in this town have really stepped in,” says Healy. “They have exceeded all my expectations.” � Miriam Rozen J. Chrys Dougherty Legal Services Award Richard LaVallo Advocacy Inc. attorney Richard LaVallo of Austin sat in the audience on May 25 as 19-year-old Victoria Barr � a mentally disabled girl whose rights he has fiercely protected for the past decade � graduated from Dripping Springs High School. “I’ve had a major impact in her life,” LaVallo says. “I’m not a religious person, but it’s almost like I’m her guardian angel.” In 1997, then-345th District Judge F. Scott McCown appointed LaVallo as attorney ad litem for Barr, whom a social worker had found a few days before living in squalor in an Austin home with her grandmother and mother, themselves disabled. Against the odds, LaVallo fought to keep Barr from being institutionalized or placed in a special education classroom when she started school. McCown, now the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, says he chose LaVallo to be Barr’s attorney ad litem, because LaVallo has “sophisticated knowledge” about the help available to people, is a very good lawyer and a zealous advocate. “He just has amazing dedication to his clients,” McCown says. In 2006, Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman again appointed LaVallo to be Barr’s attorney ad litem in In Re: Victoria Barr. In that case, Herman appointed the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services as Barr’s permanent guardian and authorized ABC’s “20/20″ program to broadcast a story about her. LaVallo’s long-term advocacy for Barr and other people with disabilities is among the reasons he is the 2007 winner of the J. Chrys Dougherty Legal Services Award from the State Bar of Texas. However, becoming a lawyer was not LaVallo’s first choice for a career � or even his second choice. In 1973, LaVallo received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. After he worked for several years, LaVallo says the University of Pittsburgh accepted him for a Ph.D. program in anthropology. “I went for about a month and decided that’s not what I want to do,” he says. His next career was as a social worker after he earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Texas at Austin in 1979. But LaVallo says he found that many lawyers did not understand the issues facing people with disabilities, so he decided to go to law school to help the disabled. LaVallo received his law degree from the UT School of Law in 1983. While in law school, LaVallo clerked at the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas, and he joined the legal services provider’s family law section after he graduated from law school. LaVallo says his first cases generally involved defending indigent parents facing termination of their parental rights in abuse cases brought by the state’s Child Protective Services (CPS). As judges got to know him better, the courts started appointing him to represent children with disabilities, he says. Since late 1988, when he joined the staff of Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for the rights of Texans with disabilities, LaVallo has maintained a broad practice. Brian East, another senior attorney at Advocacy Inc. and the person who nominated LaVallo for the Dougherty award, says LaVallo’s clients typically are people who are the least able to speak for themselves. As an example, East notes LaVallo’s advocacy on behalf of parents with mental illness to make sure the state does not unnecessarily take their children from them. In 1995, LaVallo filed In the Interest of K.K.W. in the Anderson County Court-at-Law on behalf of a parent with schizophrenia who faced termination of her parental rights. LaVallo says the case was the first filed under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to deal with parental rights. In K.K.W., the court ordered CPS to develop an ADA policy for pursuing termination of a parent’s rights when the parent has a mental illness. “This was the first policy established and the first procedure to ensure that CPS provided reasonable accommodation to parents with disabilities, so that the services they received would be appropriate to get their kids back,” LaVallo says. East says in recent years, LaVallo also has focused his attention on trying to improve adoption opportunities for children with disabilities. In 2004, the 126th District Court in Austin appointed LaVallo as attorney ad litem for two disabled boys in the state’s foster care system to try to facilitate their adoption. LaVallo filed In Re: C.S. and I.P. in the 126th District Court, requesting that the court remove allegedly unconstitutional barriers that prevented Charles and Theresa Stewart, the foster parents of C.S. and I.P., from adopting the boys. Specifically, LaVallo requested that the court require the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to increase the state’s adoption subsidy so that the boys’ foster parents could afford to adopt them. While the state pays more than $1,000 per month in subsidy for a disabled child in foster care, the state’s maximum monthly subsidy for a child who is adopted is about $540, LaVallo says. Although the state argued that its sovereign immunity barred LaVallo’s claim, the court denied its plea to the jurisdiction. But the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin reversed the trial court’s order and dismissed the claim in January 2006. “The simple reality of this case is that it is an attempt to force the State to pay money to the Stewarts that the State is not willing to pay on its own volition,” Justice Alan Waldrop wrote for the 3rd Court in C.S. and I.P. Justices David Puryear and Bob Pemberton joined Waldrop in the decision. Undeterred, LaVallo sought help from the Texas Legislature. “You can’t quit,” LaVallo says. “If you hit a barrier in the courts, you have to go on.” In April, LaVallo testified before the House Human Services Committee in support of H.B. 1359, sponsored by state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin. The bill required the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to adopt new rules that would base the amount of adoption subsidy for certain children on the subsidy amount for the child if the child remained in the foster system. When H.B. 1359 faltered, Naishtat attached it to S.B. 758, which the Legislature passed in late May and sent to Gov. Rick Perry for signing. LaVallo also has found other ways to help disabled children. East says LaVallo wrote the content for the step-by-step interactive program that Advocacy Inc. developed to inform people about how to correctly apply the requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Improvement Act of 2004 when disciplining a student with disabilities. The program helps the Advocacy Inc. staff in working with children with disabilities, but it also walks parents and school officials through the protections for students with disabilities when those students have discipline problems, East says. While LaVallo is dedicated to the children of Texas, he’s always there for his own family as well, East says. LaVallo and his wife, Allison Benesch, an assistant district attorney in Travis County, are the parents of two sons, Jake, 16, and Will, 14. “He’s one of these ultimate soccer dads,” East says. “He’s always driving his two boys to games in different cities.” � Mary Alice Robbins W. Frank Newton Award Weil, Gotshal & Manges Texas offices If not for the efforts of Weil, Gotshal & Manges attorneys on loan to the Dallas Bar Association’s Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program, DVAP leaders say, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient might have been discharged from a nursing home with nowhere to go; a sick and abused woman wouldn’t have been able to handle problems arising from the sale of her home; and other underprivileged clients may not have been able to secure child support or resolve domestic violence issues. For these and other pro bono activities, the State Bar of Texas is recognizing the Texas offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges with the 2007 W. Frank Newton Award. The award, named for the former dean of Texas Tech University School of Law and a longtime pro bono advocate, honors firms, corporate law departments and other attorney groups whose members have provided legal services to the poor or improved that community’s access to legal services. DVAP officials nominated Weil, Gotshal � an international transactional firm based in New York City with Texas offices in Austin, Dallas and Houston � for the award. “The Texas offices of Weil, Gotshal . . . regard community outreach as more than an extracurricular activity,” wrote DVAP paralegal J. Whitney Breheny in the firm’s nomination. “Commitment to pro bono, public service and other volunteer efforts [is] integral to the law firm’s culture, a culture that challenges every attorney to volunteer at least 50 pro bono hours each year.” In addition, new associates must complete a pro bono matter within their first two years with the firm, and every partner must supervise a pro bono matter each year. “Overall, [the firm's] commitment to giving back emanates from the top town,” Breheny wrote. The firm reports that the vast majority of its 120 to 130 Texas attorneys participated in pro bono activities last year for a total of 10,518 hours of service � 4,321 hours in Dallas and 6,197 in Austin and Houston combined � nearly five times the amount lawyers from the same offices donated just two years earlier. “We have been on about a four-year program to significantly improve our pro bono efforts,” says Dallas office managing partner Glenn D. West. “[I]t’s always been in our DNA. The firm has always been very active in pro bono in all its offices, but Texas, four or five years ago, was probably a little bit behind in terms of amount.” He attributes the change in part to firm leaders’ realization that business attorneys can work on other matters. It took a young, transactional attorney, Weil, Gotshal associate Jonathan S. Blum, who became the firm’s pro bono cheerleader, to get the ball rolling a few years ago. West says, “He pushed me as managing partner of the Dallas office . . . to step up to the plate. He basically convinced me through a combination of it’s the right thing to do and also it’s a good thing to do from a business perspective in terms of developing the talent of our junior lawyers as they’re coming up through the ranks.” So in 2005 the firm started the DVAP Lend-a-Lawyer initiative, through which the firm assigns attorneys in their first several years of practice to the DVAP office to perform three months of full-time pro bono legal service while continuing to receive pay and benefits from the firm. It’s such a plum assignment that new associates lobby to be selected. West would like to see other firms pick up the gauntlet and loan the DVAP one full-time attorney every quarter. “Other firms have done it in the DA’s office for trial experience, but that’s not the same thing.” Similarly, in early 2006 Weil, Gotshal’s Houston office designed a nationwide system to handle Hurricane Katrina victims’ appeals for federal aid. In conjunction with that project, through which firm attorneys have donated more than 250 hours of their time, attorneys also participated in a rotating two-week externship in Mississippi to provide three months � more than 500 hours � of legal support on the ground as the time of crisis continued into 2006. The Houston office has also worked on several projects with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and has been working with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to preserve and protect voting rights. The Austin office has been working with a defendant in his appeal of a murder conviction based primarily on hearsay testimony. John B. Strasburger, managing partner of Weil, Gotshal’s Austin and Houston offices, says the lawyers have gone above and beyond the 50 hours of pro bono the firm requires and given more than 100 hours apiece. “That’s extraordinary given where we came from,” he says. “We’ve been setting goals and upping them each year. . . . It’s become ingrained.” And that is what’s needed to ensure the future of the firm, West says. “The most talked-about issue among managing partners and senior partners is how to develop the next generation of lawyers to be the leaders and developers of the business. . . . We have found that this active involvement in pro bono � caring for clients on a one-on-one basis and getting involved in and experiencing a very broad range of problems � that the ability to problem-solve that that entails is translatable to everything we do,” West says. “It’s a unique opportunity to have a general experience of just practicing law the way it used to be practiced.” � Kristine Hughes

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