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FROM THE ALABAMA LAWYER: 30 Faces of Pro Bono - Part 3 of 6

Henry A. Callaway, III, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of Alabama, Mobile

Google defines commitment as the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc. Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Henry Callaway is the definition of being committed to pro bono services and expanding access to justice. He has actively worked for many years to expand access to justice for low-income individuals, including serving on the board of the South Alabama Volunteer Lawyers Program (SAVLP) for over 25 years, including seven as president. He has also served as chair of the Alabama Access to Justice Commission, president of the Mobile Bar Association, state bar commissioner for three terms, and member of the state bar Executive Council and Disciplinary Commission. He also received the American Bar Association Pro Bono Publico award.

When asked why pro bono work is so important, Judge Callaway explained, “So many aspects of the legal system involving low-income citizens–debt collection, eviction, child support, divorces, etc.–are complicated and virtually impossible for a layperson to navigate without a lawyer. Volunteer lawyers are a great way to address that problem.” While serving as chair of the SAVLP, he helped increase the number of participating lawyers to about 700 and expanded the program into surrounding counties. Being solution-oriented, Judge Callaway understands that a lawyer may not be available for everyone, so while serving on the Alabama Access to Justice Commission, he and the commission members developed 25 plain-language pro se forms for litigants.

Even as a Bankruptcy Judge, he still finds time to expand access to justice and address legal problems. Judge Callaway was instrumental in creating the Alabama Bankruptcy Assistance Project (ABAP) to help low-income individuals file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and he continues to serve on the ABAP Advisory Board.

Thomas J. Methvin, Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles PC, Montgomery

“Pro bono service was my number one priority.” If you practiced law in Alabama during Tom Methvin’s term as Alabama State Bar president, you know this to be a true statement. Tom was very active and resourceful in expanding access to justice. “The thing I remember the most is how the issue of access to justice in Alabama was brought to light the year I was president. Our team constantly spoke about it, wrote articles on it, raised money for it, and got more lawyers involved in the VLP. I am hopeful that this made a lasting impression on the pro bono community and elevated the issue to a new level.”

Alabama was 51st in spending on civil legal aid, behind even Puerto Rico, and is still one of only three states that provides zero state funding for civil legal aid. This knowledge was the driving force behind Tom’s presidential agenda. Since Alabama spends the least amount on access to justice, it is even more important for lawyers to volunteer their time. “Lawyers have a monopoly on practicing law. A non-lawyer cannot go to court for someone else. Therefore, if lawyers don’t help the poor get access to justice, who will?”

Alabama has one of the highest lawyer enrollment rates in pro bono programs in the country, and leads the nation in the number of pro bono cases closed annually. “I am so thankful that so many lawyers were willing to get on the rolls of our volunteer lawyer programs.”

Tom continues to advocate for pro bono work and encourages pro bono participation. He describes pro bono work as David fighting Goliath and that clients need an advocate to have a level playing field. “It is a great feeling to be a giant slayer when you get a victory for your client.”

Jeanne Dowdle (Rasco) Rizzardi, City Attorney’s Office, Huntsville

Being innovative is often the key to success. Jeanne Rizzardi has played a pivotal role in creating innovative ideas and solutions to expand access to justice. In 2012, the Alabama State Bar participated in the American Bar Association’s National Pro Bono Celebration. This was Alabama’s fourth consecutive year taking part in the celebration. Jeanne and her fellow committee members decided to shake up things, rolling out the “Justice Bus” to take lawyers to those in need of pro bono legal help.

The bus traveled to four different parts of the state, with the first stop in Decatur, where the volunteer lawyers traveled to meet with homeless military veterans at an “Operation Stand Down” event. Next, they headed to Summerdale to provide legal help with a variety of issues. The third group of volunteer lawyers and law students from Jones traveled to Lowndes County. The Justice Bus’s last stop was in Pleasant Grove, an area hit hard the previous year by massive tornadoes. It was a rewarding experience for all the attorneys involved. Jeanne explained, “I remember traveling on a bus with fellow lawyers directly to the people who needed our help the most, was not only rewarding, it was just plain fun. It was a surreal experience to sit with fellow lawyers, from completely different areas of life and law, listening to funny lawyer stories, and even singing a few songs as we travelled down the roads of south Alabama. When we stepped off the bus with our matching t-shirts on, the people were relieved and knew that we were going to make their day just a little brighter.”

Just like the Justice Bus, Jeanne continues making stops to do pro bono work as a volunteer lawyer. Her fondest memories are of the clients she served and her volunteer work at local legal clinics providing pro bono services for Alabama’s most vulnerable citizens. She is a reminder that legal work can be fun and innovative. Jeanne is serving her ninth year on the Board of Bar Commissioners.

Ahmad M. Shabani, Shabani Law Firm LLC, Hoover

Allen Shabani truly has a passion for pro bono work. He joined the Volunteer Lawyers Program just four months after passing the bar and has been an active volunteer attorney since then. He has represented several clients throughout the years in family law matters. When asked why he wanted to be a part of the VLP, he said, “This program has made significant impact and a difference in lives of many individuals who otherwise could not afford to hire a lawyer.” He wanted to be part of something big, something impactful, but to also make a difference. Allen recommends that everyone join the VLP to ensure that indigent people will not suffer injustice as a result of their economical deficiencies. Being part of the program is something that he is very proud of, and the comments from his pro bono clients keep him encouraged.

In his practice, Allen works to expand access to justice for the Hispanic community. He has been very successful in advocating for the Hispanic population and helping prevent the deportation and separation of families. He does pro bono work with the VLP and also provides services at no cost in his private practice, explaining that a client’s inability to pay not should not keep an attorney from providing service.

W.N. Watson, Watson & Neeley LLC, Fort Payne

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches lives, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. Rocky Watson is such a leader. A physical manifestation of this fact is the William D. “Bill” Scruggs, Jr. Service to the Bar Award he received. His lifelong commitment to pro bono work was evident from the beginning of his career. “I started doing pro bono work in 1974 when I was sworn in as an attorney. I came back to a small town in Alabama and was taught what the practice of law meant by members of the greatest generation, including my father. Most of the lawyers in Fort Payne at that time were veterans of World War II and the Korean War. That had given them a deep and profound understanding of service to their community and to their country. To them, that included giving legal services to those members of our community who otherwise would be unable to afford it.” Watson calls his interest in pro bono work a generational gift, one he has passed down to his daughter and law partner, who is also active in the Volunteer Lawyers Program.

One client he helped was a mother whose child had suffered multiple strokes as a teenager and was totally incapacitated, almost to a vegetative state. She had also lost her older son to drowning. Her only transportation was an old vehicle owned by her deceased son.

The client was in an accident, at no fault of her own, that totaled the vehicle. The insurance company balked at paying for the car because it was titled in her son’s name and the amount they wanted to pay her was far less than it would take for her to replace the vehicle.

Watson resolved the legal issue and got her compensation for the vehicle. He then got a car for her and allowed her to keep all of the proceeds from the case to help with other expenses. This legal assistance changed her life for the foreseeable future.

Rocky Watson sums up his belief in service by saying, “I hope that my generation is doing even a small portion of what the prior generation has done to pass on this idea of rendering service to upcoming attorneys.”