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For Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, pro bono work gives hope

When the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service signed Juan Williams as the keynote speaker for its Pro Bono Week reception, it wasn’t looking for controversy.

Williams, whose remarks during a Fox News debate cost him his job at National Public Radio less than a week before the event, was there to talk about Thurgood Marshall and the value of pro bono work.

And Williams did not disappoint. The author of a book about the Baltimore native and Supreme Court justice, Williams spoke of the lessons Marshall learned from Charles Hamilton Houston, his dean at Howard University’s law school and, later, his mentor and friend. Two of Houston’s sayings became mantras of sorts for Marshall as he pursued civil rights cases that made him a household name:

  • All people need good lawyers when their lives are on the line.
  • A lawyer who is not a social architect is nothing but a social parasite.

A week after the reception, Williams’ pro bono message was still music to Bonnie Sullivan’s ears.

“It really is our ethical obligation,” said Sullivan, MVLS’ executive director. “You either believe that or you don’t.”

Almost 600 lawyers and professionals helped nearly 3,000 low-income residents during MVLS’ fiscal year, which ended June 30. Their work totaled more 12,000 hours and was valued at $2.8 million.

The Oct. 26 reception at the University of Maryland School of Law honored Karl-Henri Gauvin as volunteer of the year and Mehlman, Greenblatt & Hare LLC as law firm of the year. Sullivan said the recipients were chosen in part on a review the organization’s case database, which tags cases with particularly good outcomes and lengthy time commitments as well as includes client satisfaction surveys.

What made the winners stand out was the quantity and quality of their cases, Gauvin with foreclosures and Mehlman Greenblatt with personal bankruptcy.

“These cases involve full litigation,” Sullivan said. “This is not just 20 minutes at a clinic. This is hours and hours with a client.”

Gauvin, a Baltimore solo practitioner, has handled 41 pro bono cases since the start of 2009, including 16 foreclosure cases in fiscal 2010 alone, through the Foreclosure Prevention Pro Bono project.

“Karl-Henri’s numbers were off the charts,” Sullivan said.

That Gauvin has so many foreclosure cases to work on in the first place is why he called his award a “mixed blessing.” But Gauvin described the pro bono cases as a natural extension of his public policy background.

“Once you get your hands dirty, it’s very rewarding,” he said.

Constance M. Hare handled 15 bankruptcy cases from MVLS during the fiscal year; her firm, which now consists of Hare and her husband, Gary R. Greenblatt, has taken 58 cases since 1993.

The winners “reflect the majority of our volunteers — solos and small firms,” Sullivan said.

Hare and Greenblatt said the reward from pro bono work is often clearer than in their regular cases. They have seen the physical and mental relief pro bono clients feel when their creditors disappear.

“They have hope now,” Hare said.

Both described the work as an obligation and “the least you can do” to give back.

Williams, in an interview following his speech, said pro bono work offers lawyers a chance to broaden their horizons, much as it did for Marshall.

“It might turn out you are not so much giving something away to those in need, as taking away something that not only enhances your legal skills but your career,” he said.