News and Information
October 18, 2019

“Our cause is righteous”: Annual Conference Educates and Honors Pro Bono Service

The legal system was created by lawyers and for lawyers, based on the assumption that participants have a lawyer, said James J. Sandman Wednesday evening. 

“So, when you put a person in a courtroom without a lawyer, particularly when they’re confronting a case with huge human consequence – the loss of their children, the loss of the roof over their head – the system is not fair.”

Sandman, the president of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), spoke as the keynote at the 2019 Pro Bono Conference in Harrisonburg on Oct. 16, where Virginia lawyers gathered for legal aid education and to honor recipients of this year’s pro bono awards. Sandman detailed the need for fully funded justice in America and, until that happens, the need for pro bono commitment from lawyers. 

Fifty-eight million people in America qualify for legal aid, according to a 2016 LSC report on the justice gap, but the income needed to qualify is so low, Sandman said, that “58 million is just the tip of the iceberg.” Meanwhile, he mentioned, the Congressional appropriation for the LSC amounts to less than what Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes for their pets. 

“Our cause is righteous,” Sandman said. “Our cause is about giving people faith that our nation’s solemn pledge of justice for all is alive and real. Our cause is about giving people hope that they might get a fair shake in our justice system.”

Later in the evening, the VSB’s Access to Legal Services Committee honored lawyers and firms living up to Sandman’s charge, recognizing the nominees and awarding the 2019 Frankie Muse Freeman Organizational Pro Bono Award and Lewis F. Powell Jr. Pro Bono Award.

The organizational award went to co-recipients: Consumer Litigation Associates, P.C. and Fairfax firm Kelly Guzzo, PLC. Len Bennett, founding partner of Consumer Litigation Associates, P.C., was exuberant in his appreciation for the crowd of legal aid lawyers. 

“We’ve received awards for what we have done. This award is about who we are,” said Bennett, commending the staff of both firms for their many hours of pro bono work.

“The legal aid community, you are my people,” said Kristi Kelly of Kelly Guzzo, PLC. “I am so humbled to be a recipient of an award [for doing] for what you guys do every single day.”

Herb Sebren of Tappahannock, winner of the Powell award, spoke of cases he’d taken on pro bono over the years that impacted his approach to small town community service. 

“I’m just an old country lawyer doing what I think I should be doing,” he said. “I’m truly humbled. I certainly didn’t expect anything like this.”

Over 200 attendees joined the evening at the Hotel Madison. The Virginia Poverty Law Center co-hosted the dinner, which occurs during their annual statewide conference. 

Earlier in the day, around 30 legal aid attorneys and lawyers involved in pro bono work took advantage of free CLE programs hosted by the VSB on eviction and representing low-income clients. Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project, taught “Identifying Fair Housing Defenses in Eviction Cases.” Christie Marra, director at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, led a lively discussion on “The Ethics of Eviction Defense.” And Jonathan Yqlesias and Kim Daulton presented on “Two Sides of Caring: Trauma-Informed Practices, Compassion Fatigue, and Other Special Considerations when Representing Legal Aid and Pro Bono Clients.”

Lawyers kicked off the day doing a poverty simulation led by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Cristin Sprenger walked participants through exercises that helped them envision living on a low income and navigating family life, housing, education, and social services – with a number of common challenges and competing demands placed along the way. Some participants experienced unlawful eviction and learned firsthand why many individuals and families living in poverty can’t afford to hire a lawyer to resolve such issues.

Above photo: Lawyers of the Consumer Litigation Associates and Kelly Guzzo with their awards. From left to right: Natalie Cahoon, Andrew Guzzo, Elizabeth Hanes, Kevin Dillon, Tara Keller, Craig Marchiando, Kristi Kelly, Thomas Domonoske, Leonard Bennett. View more photos in the album below.

Updated: Oct 21, 2019