Dedicated attorneys honored for legal service and pro bono work at Annual Access to Justice Awards Luncheon

Issue March 2008 By Kate O’Toole

Four Massachusetts attorneys and two law firms will be honored at the MBA’s Annual Access to Justice Luncheon on March 6 at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. In past years, the Access to Justice Awards luncheon was held during the MBA’s Annual Conference. This year, the MBA transformed the luncheon into a separate program in recognition of its importance as a stand-alone event.

The luncheon and award ceremony offers a chance for colleagues to pay tribute to MBA members who make significant contributions to their clients’ lives and communities through their volunteer and pro bono work.

Faye Rachlin
Managing attorney, Legal Assistance Corp., Worcester
Legal Services Award

From the earliest days of her law school career, Faye Rachlin knew that she wanted to work in legal services. Having earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Spanish, Rachlin started her career translating for lawyers, which exposed her to some of the problems that newcomers and immigrants face.

Her family also influenced her decision to go to law school. “I try to follow the example of my parents and grandparents: lawyers who care about people,” she explained. Her career began at Western Massachusetts Legal Services, where she focused on landlord-tenant issues. After 15 years at WMLS, Rachlin moved to the Legal Assistance Corp. in Worcester, where she has been since 2000.
“I think that legal services play an indispensible role in any community,” she explained. “We help our clients tell their stories in court, testify at the Statehouse and talk to elected officials in city hall.

Through legal services, client communities can be heard, and issues that affect low-income residents of any community can filter into the public consciousness.”

Rachlin has won several appeals in the Massachusetts Appeals Court and argued two cases before the Supreme Judicial Court. She has also taught civil rights litigation at Western New England College School of Law and has led training sessions on landlord-tenant law.

Despite her professional success, Rachlin regularly faces the perennial obstacles of all legal services attorneys. “My biggest challenge is elevating my clients to the status that others in society have, which is the right to a safe, decent and affordable home. Our clients’ housing stability is so fragile and threatened that it’s a constant struggle to live long term in good housing.”

Rachlin’s passion for legal services is reflected in her commitment to both her clients and her profession. Mentoring young lawyers and helping them to “be as excited and stimulated by the work as I have always been,” is one of her proudest accomplishments.

“It’s a difficult job, psychically,” she said. “Our clients can be despised and vilified and it’s hard to take sometimes.” Even with all of the challenges that a career in legal services can pose, Rachlin urges young attorneys to become involved. “We, in legal services, understand how hard it is to leave law school with debt burdens, and that it’s a hard choice to work for little money or material reward,” she explained. “I think that there are many good things to do with a law degree, but, to me, working in legal services is one of the great ones.”

Heisler, Feldman, McCormick and Garrow PC
Pro Bono Award for Law Firms

“In a sense, ‘pro bono’ work is all of the work that we do,” explained partner Joel Feldman, who estimates that more than 90 percent of his firm’s clients have incomes below the federal poverty line.

A Springfield-based law firm with four partner attorneys, a full-time fellow and a recently hired part-time attorney, Heisler Feldman was founded on the principle that poor clients deserve the same high-quality representation as any other clients, Feldman said. 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.

“We understand that means we take the risk of losing in every case,” Feldman noted. However, with the firm’s founders’ strong roots in state legal services organizations, he explained, “We believed that as a private firm, we could serve our clients in subject areas in which we had worked in legal services. The only way to make this happen was to remove barriers to representation.”

He observed that legal work in itself is “inherently intellectually interesting,” but described service to poor clients as “operating on a different level.” He continued, “Not doing pro bono work means more homelessness, more domestic abuse and more societal ills. Lawyers are the only chance that many tenants have of having a roof over their head.”

While about half of the firm’s clients are tenants facing housing issues, the firm also represents victims of discrimination, employees asserting their rights regarding overtime and minimum wage, and consumers facing unfair or deceptive trade practices.

The attorneys are also involved in a variety of service organizations, especially the Housing Court’s Lawyer for a Day project. Aside from coordinating the program for the Women’s Bar Foundation, Heisler Feldman attorneys serve as “lawyers for a day” more than 20 times a year and provide mentoring to paralegals and students. The firm has also trained more than 50 lawyers in how to represent tenants during several four-hour training sessions.

“For all of us, representing poor people is one of the main reasons we went to law school those many years ago. We have always aspired to serve underrepresented groups of clients, whether we receive compensation for our service or not,” Feldman said. “For those attorneys who are doing well financially, especially, returning some of their success back to the communities they serve is vitally important.”

Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP
Pro Bono Award for Law Firms

Founded in 1879 by Louis D. Brandeis, a prominent U.S. Supreme Court justice and early champion of pro bono work, Nutter, McClennen & Fish LLP has a rich history of volunteerism and community service.

More than 125 years later, Nutter continues to take great strides in pro bono representation. 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, 3 percent of the firm’s paying client billable hours are spent on providing legal services to low income and disadvantages individuals and families, as well as non-profit organizations.

“Nutter encourages attorneys to look beyond themselves and to participate in the community-at-large,” explained Legal Training and Development Manager Tammie C. Garner. “The firm invests a tremendous amount of its time, talent and resources to make sure others receive equal access in our justice system.”

Because of the firm’s size and scope, attorneys are able to tackle a variety of service projects. In the past year, Nutter has taken on pro bono work ranging from immigration and housing issues to indigent criminal defense and unemployment matters. The firm has also provided legal assistance to charities in forming their legal entities, obtaining 501(c)(3) status, complying with charitable fundraising laws, and more.

For example, Kenneth Berman, the firm’s partner for pro bono matters, is currently representing a class action on behalf of Massachusetts residents unable to receive state drivers licenses as a result of discriminatory practices. Meanwhile, trust and estates attorney Julia Satti Cosentino serves as special counsel to the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools Foundation.

Heidi Mitza, an associate who has worked with partner Robert Ullmann on criminal defense for indigents, recently represented a Brazilian woman who spoke only Portuguese and had no previous trouble with the law. Mitza recounted how she witnessed a prison guard yelling at her client, who had no idea what the guard wanted her to do because he spoke only English. “When you represent people in such situations, you become both a legal advocate and a lifeline, and you become personally invested in their well-being,” she said.

“As lawyers, it’s easy to view our work as merely picking up the pieces and making the best of things. My pro bono work has challenged this perspective,” commented Sarah Kohrs, a junior associate who has represented clients before the Department of Unemployment Assistance and the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children.

She explained that in her pro bono work, she has created proactive solutions, instead of merely cleaning up old messes. “My biggest lesson from pro bono is that practicing law can be constructive and creative as much as it is ameliorative and responsive.”

Thomas A. Manning
Law Office of Thomas A. Manning, Worcester
Pro Bono Publico Award

“I think that lawyers are the stewards of our system of justice, and good stewardship means that we should give generously of our time and talent for that system,” said Thomas A. Manning, a solo practitioner in Worcester. “There are many more lawyers in the Worcester County area, and elsewhere in the state, who work in the trenches and deserve this award, too.”

Manning received his undergraduate degree in criminal justice. Although he had considered working in law enforcement, he decided to continue his education at New England School of Law. “I thought that being a lawyer would allow me more options to help people in a different way,” he said.

Fresh out of law school, Manning served the city of Worcester as an assistant city solicitor. More than 20 years later, Manning has remained in the city. “My biggest challenge as an attorney has been the business side of law practice, and always having to worry about the cash flow and activity level. I can never really predict the workload.”

Despite the obstacles he faces in his Central Massachusetts solo practice, Manning is committed to his community and has dedicated many hours to serving the city’s neediest residents. He described one of his greatest accomplishments as establishing the Probate Court Lawyer for the Day, which gives private, volunteer attorneys a way to offer brief consultations to qualifying, pro se individuals on a walk-in basis.

He is also very active in the Worcester County Bar Association, referring to his colleagues in Central Massachusetts as “my extended family.” Within the WCBA, Manning has co-chaired the Committee on Services to the Poor and Homeless, and currently chairs the Lawyer Emergency Assistance Program. Manning has also raised funds for the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance through his role as chair of Worcester’s St. Thomas More Society.

Manning talked about his parents and his seven siblings instilling in him a strong moral compass.

“The person I am now is the person I have always been. I always try to do the right thing, even if the right thing is sometimes difficult to do.”

Manning recognizes the challenges of being a solo or small firm practitioner, and urges other attorneys to be realistic when taking on pro bono work. “If you have the time and talent to somehow do the pro bono work without truly sacrificing your other caseload and clients, then, as a steward of our justice system, you should commit to helping.”

Erica E. Cushna
Committee for Public Counsel Services, Springfield
Defender Award

Erica E. Cushna has spent her entire career focused on juvenile justice, doing the often “invisible” work of representing indigent children. Although she gets “her share of ‘kiddie court’ comments,” Cushna characterized juvenile work as one of the most “rewarding and challenging” areas of law. “We have a level of advocacy and experience that I believe is unparalleled in the state,” she noted.
Working with children runs in Cushna’s family. Her father, a former psychologist at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and her mother, a retired special education teacher, taught her that “a successful life is a life in service to others.”

“As I began to practice, I found numerous injustices that occur in the delinquency setting. I began to approach my practice in an effort to curtail those injustices,” she explained.
A private, solo practitioner specializing in juvenile defense work, Cushna has advocated for her clients’ rights in front of the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court. She regularly trains other attorneys in juvenile defense, and is currently the regional coordinator for juvenile delinquency and youthful offender cases in Hampden County. Recently, she has been fighting for (and winning) dismissals in cases that school systems file against children involved in school disciplinary actions.

"I have really grown to love my job,” Cushna said. “I have learned about resilience and courage, acceptance and hope.” She described the challenge of entering her clients’ lives during very difficult and personal moments, and trying to discover the causes of their behavior. “The answers are always surprising and usually heartbreaking. It’s usually in the rehabilitation that I find inspiration.”

Cushna’s clients are almost always children who are mentally ill, poor and victims of abuse whose cases frequently involve painful issues such as rape, drug abuse and violence. “It is an emotionally draining practice,” she pointed out. “Personal balance is important when you are dealing with the subject matter that is in front of the juvenile court on a daily basis.”

Despite the emotional toll that her cases can take, Cushna considers herself lucky to be a part of her clients’ lives. She especially enjoys seeing her former clients who, as adults, share their achievements with her. “When I have clients succeed in programs, engage in treatment and get proper education, I am successful,” she said.

“Hope continues to surprise me on a daily basis. I am privileged to share my clients’ successes and achievements; that is a gift.”

J. Thomas Kirkman
District Attorney’s Office, Barnstable
Prosecutor Award

“I went to law school with the goal of working on behalf of those who live on the margins of our society,” J. Thomas Kirkman recalled. “This award has a special meaning to me because it’s an ‘access to justice’ award. My entire 30 years of practice has been spent trying to improve my clients’ access to justice.”

Kirkman has worked toward equal justice as a volunteer lawyer on the South Side of Chicago, as a bar advocate, as a legal services attorney litigating landlord-tenant and consumer cases and, today, as a prosecutor for the Cape & Islands District Attorney’s Office and head of the office’s Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit. Although he worked in private practice for several years in the late 1980s, Kirkman decided that he wanted to work as a public interest litigator, and became a prosecutor in 1993.

“Prosecution is gratifying work,” he said. “We have the opportunity to profoundly enhance the safety of our communities.” Kirkman has especially focused on improving policies and social programs that support victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is an issue that Kirkman first encountered as a young attorney. As a volunteer lawyer for Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Kirkman represented individual women in securing restraining orders against their batterers as part of a federal class action civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago.

After moving to the Cape in 1981, Kirkman continued to work with victims of domestic violence. Coincidentally, as he made his decision to switch from private to public practice in 1993, District Attorney Phillip A. Rollins was setting up a specialized domestic violence unit. “It seemed like a natural move,” Kirkman explained. “And here I am.”

Kirkman is also one of the founders of the Cape and Islands Regional Domestic Violence Council and serves on its steering committee. He has also served on the Education and Prevention sub-committee of the Massachusetts Commission on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.

Balancing his drive to improve the outcomes for victims of domestic violence with his regular trial and appellate caseload is Kirkman’s most daunting challenge. He insists that working exclusively as a prosecutor will not solve the problems of domestic violence, and that it is “critical to work with others in our community” to address these issues. He has made it a priority to work with hospitals, schools, churches and courthouses to do just that.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from doing socially responsible work and using my office to shape an effective law enforcement response to domestic violence,” he added.