MBA presents Access to Justice Awards; Nancy King’s legacy as advocate celebrated

Issue April 2008 By Jennifer Rosinski

Legendary legal advocate Nancy King was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Massachusetts Bar Association’s 2008 Access to Justice Awards Luncheon, held March 6 at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

In total, five attorneys and two law firms were presented with awards at the event, where State Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston) gave a keynote address about eradicating homelessness.

King, who lost her more than 20-year battle with breast cancer in December, is only the second person to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and the first to have the luncheon dedicated to her legacy.

King was executive director of South Middlesex Legal Services in Framingham, where she spent 30 years of her career. SMLS provides free civil legal aid to the low-income residents of 36 towns located between Routes 128 and 495. King was known for her dedication to her clients, fundraising talents and ability to lobby the Legislature.

“Nancy will be remembered in the legal world as a leader, a compassionate advocate for the delivery of legal services to the poor, a wise mentor, and a highly effective fundraiser for legal services,” said MBA President David W. White Jr. “Selfless to the end, rather than fret about herself, she took care of clients, colleagues and relatives. For example, she would even help run her office by phone from the hospital when treatments demanded her presence.”

King’s sisters Mary, Patricia and Eileen, as well as her brothers Michael and Thomas, accepted the Access to Justice Lifetime Achievement Award on her behalf.

“On behalf of my family, I want to thank the Massachusetts Bar Association for this Lifetime Achievement Award and for dedicating this luncheon to Nancy,” King’s sister, Mary King, said.

Mary King read a speech her sister gave more than 10 years earlier when she was honored with the David Nelson Award for Public Interest from Boston College Law School, her alma mater. “I believe in the ideal of equal justice under the law. That may be considered naive or idealistic, and I accept both characterizations as great accomplishments,” Mary King said, reading her sister’s speech.

Following the award presentation, White announced that the board of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, the MBA’s philanthropic partner, has created the Nancy King Memorial Fellowship. This fellowship will support a legal intern during the summer months at South Middlesex Legal Services. The fellowship was made possible by a contribution from MBA Past President Elaine M. Epstein and matching funds from the foundation’s Fellows program.

“It was her characteristic tenacity that made Nancy so effective in providing legal aid to countless clients in the 36 towns served by South Middlesex Legal Services,” White said. “As Nancy’s colleague Betsy Soule said, ‘Nancy was a realist about the problems that their clients faced, but she was always hopeful and inspirational about the impact they could have on their clients’ lives.’ ”

The MBA’s Access to Justice to Section nominates the Access to Justice Award candidates, who are then approved by the MBA House of Delegates.

“The common ground for all of the Access to Justice Award recipients is their steadfast and selfless fight for clients who cannot afford represent-ation,” White said. “The collective efforts of the 2008 Access to Justice awardees have had an overwhelmingly positive and often life-altering impact on the lives of their many clients.”

The Legal Services Award was given to Faye Rachlin, managing attorney at Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts in Worcester. Rachlin has been with LACCM since 2000. Previously, she worked at Western Massachusetts Legal Services, where she focused on landlord-tenant issues.

“We do this work because of our clients,” Rachlin said in accepting her award. “They remind me, and they remind us, time and again, how necessary it is to fight against poverty and how necessary it is to fight for equal rights and justice.”

Two law firms were presented with the Pro Bono Award for Law Firms: Heisler, Feldman, McCormick and Garrow PC in Springfield and Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP in Boston.

Heisler, Feldman, McCormick and Garrow PC, a firm with four partner attorneys, a full-time fellow and a part-time attorney, was founded on the principle that poor clients deserve the same high-quality representation as any other clients. To achieve this, the firm has taken advantage of “fee-shifting” provisions found in state civil rights and tenant rights statutes. Instead of requiring advance payment from clients, the attorneys take on poor clients’ meritorious cases, and are subsequently awarded attorney’s fees by the judge.

“The founders of our firm founded the firm on the principle that indigent litigants deserve representation,” said founding partner Suzanne Garrow, who explained that clients are not expected to pay up front legal fees. “This means we’re happy, although sometimes poor.”

Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP was founded in 1879 by Louis D. Brandeis, a prominent U.S. Supreme Court justice and early champion of pro bono work. Nutter has signed on with the Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Project as a founding member and challenge participant. As a result, three percent of the firm’s paying client billable hours are spent providing legal services to immigrants, low-income and disadvantaged individuals and families, as well as nonprofit organizations.

“The importance of pro bono work goes back to our founder, Louis D. Brandeis,” said partner Christa Von Der Luft. “Thank you for this recognition.”

The Pro Bono Publico Award was presented to Thomas A. Manning, a solo practitioner in Worcester. Manning devotes much of his time to many meaningful pro bono activities and initiatives in the greater Worcester community, including chairing legal assistance programs, raising funds for relief services, and the establishment of the Probate Court Lawyer for the Day program in his local court.

The program gives private, volunteer attorneys a way to offer brief consultations to individuals who are representing themselves.

“I never became a lawyer to make a lot of money. I, like a lot of people in this room, became a lawyer to help people,” said Manning, who joked that his accountant often asks, “Is your firm a nonprofit?”

The Defender Award was given to Erica E. Cushna, a solo practitioner in Springfield who specializes in juvenile defense work. Cushna also serves as regional coordinator for juvenile delinquency and youthful offender cases in Hampden County for the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

“I have to tell you, when I first got this letter, I thought it was a mistake. I’m so honored to be here today,” said Cushna, who said she derives inspiration from her clients. “I’m amazed at what some of my clients have been able to overcome… I accept this award in recognition of their hard work, the hard work of change.”

The Prosecutor Award was presented to J. Thomas Kirkman, a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office in Barnstable. As the director of the Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit for the Cape and Islands District of Massachusetts, he has never lost his compassion for victims and continues to perform creative and important work on behalf of the indigent community. Kirkman is also one of the founders of the Cape and Islands Regional Domestic Violence Council and serves on its steering committee.

“Ours is an honorable profession and we do such good things. We should be proud of the work we do. I know I am,” Kirkman said. “I thank you, and I thank you for this award.”

Rushing, second assistant majority leader of the House of Representatives, closed the event with his keynote address. Rushing serves the 9th Suffolk District, which includes parts of Boston and Cambridge. His legislative priorities include human and civil rights, the advancement of democracy, economic and housing development, and providing housing and health care for all.

The co-chair of the state’s Commission to End Homelessness, Rushing spoke about the need to create true access to both justice and public institutions and challenged the crowd to help end homelessness. The commission has come up with a plan to refocus state funding priorities from homeless shelters to creating and supporting permanent housing. “In five years we will have ended homelessness in Massachusetts,” Rushing said. “Justice is justice when it is for all.”