Pro Bono Awards Presented
The winners of the North Carolina Bar Association’s 2018 Pro Bono Awards were honored at the NCBA Annual Meeting in Wilmington.
The recipients of the 2018 Pro Bono Awards are:
- William Thorp Pro Bono Service Award: Rod Kight, Kight Law, Asheville/Waynesville
- Chief Justice Award: Randolph County Bar Association
- Deborah Greenblatt Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award: Susan “Susy” Pollitt, Disability Rights North Carolina, Raleigh
- Law Firm Award: Law , Durham
- Law Student Group Award: Wake Forest Law School LGBTQ Project
- Younger Lawyer Pro Bono Award: Nicki Applefield Engel, Patla, Straus, Robinson & Moore, Asheville
William L. Thorp Pro Bono Service Award
The William L. Thorp Pro Bono Service Award, originally established in 1984 as the Pro Bono Service Award, recognizes lawyers who provide exceptional pro bono legal assistance to low-income citizens of North Carolina. This award was renamed in 2002 in memory of Bill Thorp, a founder of Legal Services of N.C.
Kight is a bankruptcy attorney who practices in Asheville and Waynesville. Since 2006, he has accepted a Chapter 7 bankruptcy pro bono referral every month from the Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Sylva office. In that time, Kight has accepted more than 100 individuals for consultation or representation in Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings completely pro bono, representing a client from every county in the 30th Judicial District.
And for every referral that Kight has accepted from the 30th Judicial District, he has taken another pro bono referral just like it from Pisgah Legal Services. The pro bono clients he has worked with are some of the most vulnerable residents of the state. Oftentimes these clients are elderly, living alone and on a fixed income, usually reliant on retirement or disability income. Many times they have amassed debt because of some tragedy, often something medical related, that caused them to fall behind.
On average, the pro bono clients that Kight has assisted are living on a household income of less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $29,000/year for a family of four. He also has served as both a volunteer mediator and board member at The Mediation Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to “win-win” conflict resolution.
Kight is a graduate of Furman University and the University of South Carolina School of Law.
Chief Justice Award
The Chief Justice Award recognizes bar associations whose members make extraordinary contributions in support of pro bono legal services. This award was established in 1989.
In 2015, Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) faced substantial funding cuts that resulted in reduction in staff and threatened its ability to maintain services to clients. When Tom Robins heard about the budget cuts, he realized that LANC would no longer be able to send an attorney to Randolph County to represent victims of domestic violence.
Robins, a partner at Bunch, Robins & Stubblefield in Asheboro, immediately assembled a team of attorneys — Sarah Lanier, Jennifer Bennett, Margaret Megerian and Brooke Schmidly — to not only temporarily fill this gap, but to ensure a long-term commitment to addressing the unmet legal need of domestic violence victims in Randolph County. The group developed a weekly on-call rotation system to represent victims of domestic violence in Randolph County in domestic violence hearings.
Janet McAuley Blue, managing attorney of the LANC Greensboro office, said she has “never seen a group of people just decide to get together, agree to cooperate and do this kind of representation.” Over the years, she has seen many individuals do great pro bono work, but “not anything like this, where there is a group that has basically agreed to cover an entire area of law in a county.”
Over the past two years, these attorneys have accepted over 120 referrals of domestic violence clients, whose cases typically turn on very tight deadlines. Despite the challenges of timing, not to mention the emotional investment necessary to represent clients in domestic violence hearings, this group of attorneys remains steadfast in their commitment to serve.
Deborah Greenblatt Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award
The Deborah Greenblatt Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award, originally established in 1991 as the Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award, is presented to an attorney who provides exemplary legal service through an agency or other nonprofit entity that serves low-income citizens. This award was renamed in 2005 in memory of Deborah Greenblatt, an outstanding lifelong legal services attorney.
Susan Pollitt has devoted her entire legal career to working on behalf of marginalized populations. Her legal and advocacy work over the past 30-plus years has benefited thousands of prisoners, people with disabilities, and people living in poverty. She began her career in 1984 at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office representing clients in criminal court, involuntary commitment proceedings, and appeals. From there, she advocated for workers’ rights at the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Project.
In 1989, Pollitt joined North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS) and remained there for 16 years. At NCPLS, she developed the expertise that makes her one of our state’s leading advocates for breaking down the connections between poverty, disabilities, and incarceration.
In 2005, she focused her legal work on the rights of people with mental illness when she joined Carolina Legal Assistance (CLA), whose founder and executive director was revered disability rights advocate Deborah Greenblatt, for whom this award is named. Two years later, CLA became the protection and advocacy agency for North Carolina and was renamed Disability Rights North Carolina.
At Disability Rights NC, Pollitt has specialized in defending the rights of people with disabilities who are incarcerated. Her tireless advocacy has resulted in increased public awareness of the devastating psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement, the treatment of juvenile offenders with mental health disorders and intellectual disabilities, and incidents of suicide in prisons and jails. She currently devotes the majority of her practice to addressing the needs of prisoners with all types of disabilities and is well known both within the state and around the country as an expert and a mentor in this area of law and practice.
Pollitt is a graduate of Northeastern University School of Law.
Law Firm Award
Law was started by Richard Bobholz five and a half years ago in Durham. The firm specializes in working with small- to mid- size businesses and non-profits, focusing its pro bono legal services on assistance to entrepreneurs. Last year, Bobholz performed almost 200 hours of pro bono service in North Carolina, in addition to over 200 hours of non-legal community service.
Through its annual program “30 Companies in 30 Days,” program Law attorneys donate a month’s time pro bono to help 30 entrepreneurs form new companies. When an attorney at Law donates time to a client pro bono, the firm asks the client to “pay it forward” by donating equivalent time to local community service. In another program, called the Pro Bono Plus Program, clients may opt to “pay” for their legal services by volunteering for local non-profits.
Law was the first law firm to gain North Carolina B Corporation certification, which requires a commitment that the firm put profit on the same level as doing what is best for the community, for its employees, and for the environment. The firm’s Operating Agreement specifies that attorneys must provide 300 hours of pro bono or community service hours per year, and a pro bono commitment also is a requirement to becoming a full partner in the firm.
Bobholz is a graduate of Michigan Technical University and Drexel University School of Law.
Law Student Group Pro Bono Project Award
The Law Student Group Pro Bono Project Award is presented to a law student group that provides legal service beneficial to low-income citizens. This award was established in 2002.
During a 2017 LGBTQ Legal Clinic, dozens of Wake Forest Law School students, under the supervision of seven volunteer attorneys, offered pro bono legal services to members of the LGBTQ community. Services offered included gender marker and name changes and drafting of living wills, testamentary wills, and health care powers of attorney.
The students who participated in this clinic not only grappled with complex legal concepts, but they did so while displaying empathy and compassion towards clients who face a unique intersection of obstacles as members of the LGBTQ community.
As Rayce J. Lamb (Board Member, North Star LGBTQ Community Center) explained, “what made this event so powerful was the professionalism and the awareness each student brought to the client they assisted during the event.”
To raise awareness about the service in the community, students promoted the clinic at the Winston-Salem PRIDE festival the weekend before the clinic, which resulted in significantly more community members seeking the services of the clinic than in previous years.
Younger Lawyer Pro Bono Service Award
The Younger Lawyer Pro Bono Service Award was created by the Young Lawyers Division in 2001 to promote pro bono activities among young or newly practicing attorneys.
Nicki Applefield Engel became a volunteer with Asheville’s Mountain Area Volunteer Lawyer (MAVL) Program, a partnership between Pisgah Legal Services and the 28th Judicial District Bar, when she entered into legal practice in 2012. Since that time she has taken 29 pro bono case referrals through MAVL (primarily cases to help seniors), contributing almost 200 hours of service.
Engel also has provided service and leadership as a member of the NCBA Elder and Special Needs Law Section, through which she volunteers as part of the Hospice Pro Bono Project and recently became a volunteer for the Elder Abuse and Financial Exploitation project. Her commitment to protecting seniors is also evident in her leadership on the Council on Aging of Buncombe County Board of Directors and as chair of the Buncombe County Triad, a partnership among law enforcement, older adults, and service providers to reduce victimization of seniors.
Engel also chairs a regional Fraud and Exploitation Scam Summit each year to increase the ability of professionals in banking, finance and retail to protect seniors and people with disabilities from fraud and exploitation.
Engel is a graduate of Appalachian State University and West Virginia University College of Law. She practices with Patla Straus Robinson & Moore in Asheville.