Husband-and-wife team bring pro bono work to their partnership

Issue August 2003 By Andrea Barter, Esq.

What do the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, 50 Africans illegally transported aboard the Amistad, nonprofit organizations and bankrupt individuals have in common?

Each deserves equal justice under the law - a principal exemplified by John Adams and John Quincy Adams that continues today through the work of attorneys Irene Schall and Roger Stanford of the New Bedford law firm, Stanford & Schall.

Husband Wife Pro Bono
Photo by David Spink
Husband-and-wife law practice team Irene Schall and Roger Stanford dedicate much of their time to using their legal skills to help others. The attorneys and their New Bedford firm, Stanford & Schall, received the Supreme Judicial Court's prestigious Adams Pro Bono Publico Award, which is presented in recognition of outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged.
In early June, the husband-and-wife team received the Supreme Judicial Court's prestigious Adams Pro Bono Publico Award, which is presented in recognition of outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged.

Established in 1999, the awards are named in honor of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, lawyers with long and distinguished careers in public service. Other recipients this year include attorney Michael G. Paris of Newton and the Women's Bar Foundation.

The SJC's Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services selects awardees from among those who have excelled in the development and delivery of legal services to the poor; satisfied previously unmet needs or extended services to underserved segments of the population; successfully litigated pro bono cases that favorably affected the provision of other services to the poor; or successfully achieved legislation that contributed substantially to legal services for the poor.

The committee solicits nominations, seeking candidates from organizations and large and small firms in all areas of practice who demonstrate a significant contribution of pro bono assistance. Direct client work is considered on an equal basis with programmatic work.

Irene Schall was recognized for her activities outside of the courtroom rather than for direct services.

Schall served on the Supreme Judicial Court Pro Bono Committee, assisting in the development of SJC Rule 6.1, Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service. She also has been a member of the board of directors of Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, serving as chair for three years. She currently is vice-chair of the IOLTA Committee. In addition, Schall has spent 10 years on the Sexual Abuse Review Board for the Fall River Diocese.

Schall's other pro bono activities include participating in the Bristol County Lawyer for the Day program and the New Bedford Bar Association Law Day clinic program as well as counseling low-income taxpayers and securing tax-exempt status for a number of charitable institutions on a pro bono basis.

Although the award ceremony was "a thrill" for Schall, the moment was bittersweet. The only child of immigrants who escaped communist Poland after World War II, both her parents are deceased.

"They would have been bowled over by the accolades we are receiving," said Schall.

Because her father worked during the day and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in 12 years of night school, he had no time for community service. Her mother had to take care of Schall and Schall's grandfather.

"I understood how privileged I was to be in this country and to come from such loving people," Schall said. "(The need for community service) was never consciously expressed to me, but I learned from their intrinsic goodness."

Schall's husband and law firm partner shares a similar passion for community service. In receiving the award with his wife, Stanford was recognized for his direct-assistance pro bono work.

"We've never had a partners' meeting to discuss the amount of pro bono work," Stanford said. "It's just something we've historically done and continue to do."

Stanford became a member of the Private Bar Involvement Panel of the Southeastern Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (SMLAC) in 1983. When SMLAC established a bankruptcy clinic, he was the first attorney in private practice to volunteer to meet with clients in a clinic setting, providing free legal assistance in bankruptcy cases.

He continues his pro bono activities at the New Center for Legal Advocacy, as the center assumed responsibility for the pro bono program in southeastern Massachusetts in 1997. Stanford conducts bankruptcy clinics once every two months with 10 to 20 attendees per clinic. He provides an overview of the bankruptcy process and the debt-collection process as well as possible relief options. In addition, Stanford handles a large number of cases where he charges either nothing or a significantly reduced amount.

"A unique contribution from Stanford & Schall brought their candidacy to our attention," said Richard McMahon, chair of the award subcommittee. "It is only a two-person firm, yet both lawyers have made significant contributions in their own right. The legal community in this end of the state is very proud of them and pleased they are getting recognition they so richly deserve."

Stanford's typical pro bono client suffers at the hands of bill collectors. He helps them try to arrange reasonable collection schedules or settlements, as well as educate them as to what debt collectors can and can't do. A substantial percentage of these clients are elderly.

"The ease of credit in our society has just clobbered the elderly," Stanford said.

Stanford is proud that he is able to help those living on a fixed, limited income solve their debt problems. In one instance, an elderly woman living in senior citizen housing would write a check for the minimum payment on her credit card at the beginning of the month. By the third or forth week of the month, she would run out of money and go without eating. Stanford handled her bankruptcy and successfully wiped out her credit card debt.

Even Stanford's opposing counsel admires his talents.

"Roger is one of the most dedicated lawy ers I know…. Based on his character I'm not at all surprised that he's done what he's done and I'm glad that it's been recognized," said Stephen E. Shamban. "He certainly has substantial knowledge and expertise in bankruptcy law, and I should know, since I've got the dents and scratches to show it. The New Bedford area is lucky to have someone with his expertise providing guidance on a pro bono basis."

Schall receives similar praise.

"I feel so strongly about the importance of Irene's pro bono contribution being recognized," said Jayne Tyrrell, executive director of IOLTA. "She exemplifies the exceptional small-firm practitioner."

Schall is concerned that with the increase in competition among lawyers and the current economic climate, more attorneys are foregoing pro bono work in favor of chasing more lucrative clients. But she encourages practitioners to spend time on pro bono work, because it will make up for the fact that the attorney may not be as busy as he or she used to be.

"Performing pro bono work has had an effect on our bottom line. But it really mattered to us. It's nice that our work has been recognized," said Schall.

"I truly feel the things I've done through pro bono programs have been the most enriching and satisfying work I've done," she added. "Sometimes it is the most difficult, but I know I've had a tremendous impact, more so than through one-on-one with clients."

Tony Doniger, chairman of the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee and partner at Sugarman Rogers Barshak & Cohen PC in Boston, admires Schall's tireless advocacy for legal services and pro bono efforts by attorneys.

"Irene recognizes unmet legal needs and how attorneys have to do everything they can to help alleviate the problems caused by the lack of sufficient legal services to those who can't afford attorneys," Doniger said.

"IOLTA is a key part of legal services work in Massachusetts, particularly so in these times of shrinking state budgets and cuts with respect to legal services. Irene's contribution (as vice-chair of Massachusetts IOLTA) on those fronts is invaluable."

Stanford and Schall have been married for 24 years. They met while they were working at Legal Services; she was an intern between her second and third year of law school and he was a practicing attorney.

The office staff set them up on their first date shortly before she returned to law school.

"As they say, I owe it all to legal services," said Schall.

The duo didn't intend to practice law together. Schall had worked for a local practitioner, but when things didn't work out, Stanford asked her to come practice with him.

"We are very different, but it's worked," Schall said. "It's not always easy, and it makes for an interesting day at the office from time to time. However, we each have a tremendous respect for the knowledge each of us has in our areas. It has been wonderful, because we really support one another."

A two-person law firm with a total of 54 years of experience, Stanford & Schall is a general practice firm with bankruptcy, domestic relations, estate planning, taxes and real estate as principal areas of practice. The firm is located in downtown New Bedford.