Access to Justice Award winners to be honored

Issue May 2013

Pro Bono Award for Law Firms
Brown Rudnick LLP

Brown Rudnick LLP has a deep commitment to pro bono work. After forming the Brown Rudnick Charitable Foundation Corp., in 2000, the firm decided to combine all of its charitable efforts under one umbrella. As such, the firm created the Brown Rudnick Center for the Public Interest, which combines the firm's pro bono, charitable grants and volunteer efforts. Since the center's creation in 2001, the firm has provided over 89,500 hours of pro bono legal representation, valued at more than $36 million.

Many of those hours of probono work have been in Massachusetts where Brown Rudnick has been, and continues to be, active in many projects. The firm has partnered with the Volunteer Lawyers Project to provide pro bono legal representation to low-income clients. In addition, Brown Rudnick has recently worked with the Lawyers Clearinghouse on Affordable Housing and Homelessness to create and implement a Legal Assessment Program for nonprofit organizations. The firm also participates bi-annually in the clearinghouse's Legal Clinic for the Homeless, having donated 855 hours over the last two years.

Brown Rudnick Center for the Public Interest Executive Director Al Wallis described his most memorable pro bono experience with a homeless client. "It was not a particularly challenging legal issue… the thing that was so powerful was that she saw the world flip from good to bad in a couple of days." The client was a previously employed middle-class woman who had lost her job due to illness and whose life had changed drastically as a result. She realized "that there was THIS side of America … this side of poverty."

The experience was a "profound reminder of why it's so important to do this work," Wallis said.

As part of its commitment to pro bono work, Brown Rudnick requires that each bankruptcy associate take on at least two pro bono cases a year through the Volunteer Lawyers Project. The cases help low-income debtors file Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy. Firm bankruptcy attorney Ben Chapman described that "often, petitions people filed for themselves would be denied," underscoring the need for legal representation when filing for bankruptcy.

According to Chapman, he and his colleagues help their pro bono clients through the entire filing process, which includes preparing and filing the petitions as well as attending the mandatory 341 meeting with trustees and creditors. "You really do get a sense that you are helping someone - people experiencing extreme financial distress," Chapman said. "It's really nice to help them with a fresh start."

Also through their partnership with the Volunteer Lawyers Project, Brown Rudnick represents individuals in unemployment benefit disputes. Firm associate Jennifer MacDowell participates in the program. "Being out of work can be one of the most personally demoralizing things that can happen to a person. The [unemployment] benefits help them stay on their feet during the trying and lengthy process of finding a new job." MacDowell notes that cases where employees are forced to quit due to work conditions are particularly challenging. She recently represented a woman who had to quit her job because of the daily discrimination in her male-dominated work environment. Through the pro bono work of MacDowell and colleagues, the woman was able to keep her unemployment benefits. "Being able to help this woman - and all of these clients - through such a difficult period in her life is why this work is so important to us," MacDowell said.

In response to receiving the Pro Bono Award for Law Firms, Wallis said, "the fact that the state's largest bar association would take the time to applaud, focus on, and support this type of pro-bono legal work is the real award."

"Receiving the applause of the Massachusetts Bar Association for the pro bono work and direction that Brown Rudnick is taking with public interest is a marvelous affirmation."

Legal Services Award
Ruth A. Bourquin, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

If it takes a village to raise a child, it often takes an army to protect one; especially one as vulnerable as a homeless child. Ruth A. Bourquin, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, has been a general of this army - a diverse network dedicated to ensuring that homeless children are not exposed to harmful and unsafe conditions.

Bourquin specializes in public benefits, including family shelter. She has engaged in legislative and administrative advocacy, as well as class action litigation, expanding access to income supports for needy families and to emergency assistance for homeless families.

She recently served as the lead advocate statewide, working with pro bono counsel and medical providers, as well as the legal and social services communities, to preserve safety net programs that protect homeless parents and their children. When the state decided to reorganize its emergency shelter system, proposing significant regulatory restrictions to access to shelter for homeless families with children, Bourquin assembled a diverse coalition to identify deficiencies in the state's proposed policies and to suggest remedies to protect homeless families.

Recognizing that the proposed changes would jeopardize existing safety net protections, Bourquin spearheaded efforts to meet with members of Gov. Deval L. Patrick administration and the Legislature, testifying at legislative and administrative hearings to provide detailed comments exposing the harm of the proposed changes while articulating effective solutions.

Bourquin said some of the protections that she advocated for are found in the new regulations, but too many homeless children in Massachusetts are now being denied shelter and forced to sleep in unsafe and inappropriate places.

"I was extremely honored to be told about this award, particularly because it is based on my work on behalf of homeless families with children who are now facing great difficulty accessing emergency shelter in the commonwealth," Bourquin said. " I would like to accept this award on behalf of the very brave families I work with each day who manage to protect their children and be good parents, notwithstanding the crisis of homelessness they face."

Legal Services Award

James Breslauer, Neighborhood Legal Services

Neighborhood Legal Services Advocacy Coordinator James Breslauer has dedicated his entire career to helping the underrepresented. Before joining Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS) in 1996, Breslauer worked as a legal aid attorney in Pennsylvania and at Merrimack Valley Legal Services in Massachusetts.

"In college in the '60s, I got very bothered by the inequities I was seeing, as far as how poor people were being treated and black people were being treated … I couldn't stand the injustice. So I decided to go to law school and do something about it," Breslauer said.

It was at Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania where Breslauer truly began his career in legal aid. "I almost got kicked out of law school because I was working 40 hours a week in the legal aid clinic."

Over the years, Breslauer has worked in many different areas of legal aid, including public benefits law, unemployment, anti-hunger issues, housing, health law, trial work and appellate advocacy.

Breslauer remembers one particular unemployment case in which the client lost his job because the employer had switched his shift. Although the client did not have childcare and needed to stay home to care for his children during the new shift hours, he was denied unemployment benefits. After losing in the Massachusetts Appeals Court, Breslauer was ready to give up, but appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court at the request of his client.

"Low and behold - we won," Breslauer said. The SJC ruled that staying home to take care of children was good cause. "Good personal reasons can be good cause for leaving work," he said The client was so thrilled with the result that he framed a picture of himself holding the SJC decision and gave it to Breslauer in gratitude.

As a result of decreased funding that forced NLS to downsize, Breslauer now focuses more on housing law. He explained that many of his days are spent trying to get a court order for shelter for families that have nowhere to go.

"Unfortunately, lately we've been really hit with an awful lot of families who are homeless and being denied shelter by DHCD [Department of Housing and Community Development]," he said.

In addition, Breslauer spends at least one morning a week at the Northeast Housing Court in Lawrence, where he helps less experienced attorneys and law students represent low-income tenants in mediation. He has also served as a hearing officer for the Board of Bar Overseers for many years, as well as a judge for the MBA Mock Trial Program.

In receiving the MBA Legal Services Access to Justice Award, Breslauer said he is "totally blown away" and incredibly honored.

"I feel most of the time that our clients are invisible - to many government agencies and politicians, they are just statistics. This award is really a recognition by a very prestigious organization, the MBA, that our clients count and are entitled to all of the same legal rights as those with money."

Pro Bono Publico

Timothy G. Lynch, Swartz & Lynch LLP

One of Timothy G. Lynch's most illustrative anecdotes about what impermanence does to shape a child is the one about "The Box."

He said a teen in foster care who has a morning spat with a foster parent can come home after school to find a social worker sitting on his or her bed with a box for personal belongings to collect in order to leave the home.

"It's just common sense that children brought up without any permanency are not going to do very well," Lynch said. "Their odds are greatly diminished, but if you have a volunteer to give a kid direction, that kid will succeed." He said foster children can sometimes be made keenly aware - by their foster parents - that the foster parents are being paid to take them in, and that that message is mostly less than kind.

Lynch's main pro bono focus has been his work with Boston CASA Inc., a nonprofit child advocacy association concentrating on the best interests of children who are the subject of abuse and neglect cases. He has volunteered for CASA since 1991, first as a court-appointed legal advocate, then as a board member and currently as the organization's president.

Boston CASA recruits, trains and supervises volunteer advocates to represent the best interests of children in the courtroom and to ensure that their medical, educational and other needs are met, and makes recommendations for permanent and temporary living conditions.

When budgetary cutbacks at the Probation Department forced CASA to find new quarters, the preparation that Lynch had made, including obtaining financial backing, allowed the program to become a free-standing, non-profit organization with its own executive director and its own offices.

He was shocked when notified he was receiving this award, but expressed hope that it brings more publicity to the cause of CASA, whose young clients are dubbed "the forgotten children."

"It's critical to do whatever we can for these kids, because what happens to them will come back to all of us," he said.

Defender Award
The Hon. Gloria Tan, Massachusetts Juvenile Court  Associate Justice

The Hon. Gloria Tan remembers being told, as a newly-minted public defender at the Trial Unit of the Commitee for Public Counsel Services, that in the role of public defender, you are "the one person in the courtroom standing in the way of a high-speed train going toward your client, and you are the only one who can stand on the tracks."

Most people wouldn't care for that job description, but Tan, who worked at Harvard's Criminal Justice Institute as a clinical instructor and supervisor for law students representing indigent adults and youth in, before her judgeship, criminal and delinquency proceedings, said she feels lucky to have served. "A client is more than just a docket number on case. It's your job to tell the court who your client is and what crime they're charged with," she said.

Many Criminal Justice Institute clients were in court because of issues such as substance abuse or mental illness or learning disabilities. Post-dispositional advocacy goes beyond the courtroom.

"I have taken clients to drug treatment programs," Tan said. "After the case is over, we try to achieve the best outcome, but we [also] try to address underlying issues to reduce recidivism, help them find jobs, get them into counseling, and keep them from violating probation."

Tan serves on the board of directors of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts and has chaired the MBA Criminal Justice Section Council, where she remains as a member. She is also a member of the MBA House of Delegates, its Executive Management Board, and the Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, serving on the Re-entry Subcommittee.

Gloria has encouraged Asian American lawyers and other lawyers of color to join and become active in the MBA and in their communities. She volunteers as a citizenship tutor at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.

"I feel very honored and humbled by this," she said of winning the Defender Award.

Prosecutor Award
Adam J. Foss, Suffolk County District Attorney's Office

Assistant District Attorney Adam J. Foss started law school to become an entertainment lawyer, but after a clerkship in Roxbury District Court and participating in the Suffolk Defenders Clinic at Suffolk University Law School, Foss realized he wanted to work in the criminal justice system.

"I thought I wanted to be a defense attorney," said Foss, who began his career as a prosecutor in Suffolk County after graduating from law school in 2008. Foss explained that ADAs are capable of giving someone a second chance, something unique to the prosecutor's role.

"We're endowed with a tremendous amount of power, and if you use that power for good, you really can make a lot of change," he said.

Foss currently works in the Juvenile Division of the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office. Foss has committed himself to giving back to the community through efforts such as the Roxbury CHOICE Program, an initiative to turn probation from a punitive sentence into a beneficial relationship with the court. On a case-by-case basis, offenders are given the alternative of applying to educational programs such as the Re-Engagement Center, Year Up, Youth Opportunities Unlimited Boston, and Strive.

One of Foss's most memorable CHOICE cases pertained to a South-End gang member. When the defendant violated his terms of probation, Foss chose to ask the presiding judge for a second chance with him. As an alternative to incarceration, the defendant was accepted into the Year Up program, where he graduated with the skills necessary to maintain a job. He now works in technical support services and is no longer involved in gang life.

Foss is founder of the Reading Program, in which members of the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, as well as other government agencies, volunteer to read in early elementary classrooms in Roxbury. Foss said the idea was inspired when he overheard a statistic that "first-grade inner-city kids have only been read to for a total of 24 hours in their lives," whereas their suburban counterparts have been read to for an estimated 1,800 hours by first grade. The program is an effort to help bridge the gap.

Foss finds his work extremely rewarding and has no plans of slowing down. He is currently working to create a diversion program for the Suffolk County Juvenile Court. "A lot of times your job starts at five," said Foss, adding that District Attorney Dan Conley told him that when he was first hired back in 2008 - it has stuck with him ever since.

"Everything I've done is with the support and encouragement of a lot of people in my office," said Foss, expressing his gratitude to Conley and the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.