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MLSC to honor legal services veterans

To close out a tumultuous year for civil legal services programs — including unprecedented demand for legal help and the General Assembly stepping up to the plate to fill a funding gap caused by the near-collapse of IOLTA — the Maryland Legal Services Corp. is honoring three veterans at its annual awards banquet next week.

First up is Ward Coe of Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP, an attorney with more than three decades of experience representing corporations in complex commercial litigation — and an equally long track record in supporting legal services to the poor.

Coe will receive the Arthur W. Machen, Jr. Award, which is presented annually to an attorney who has given “extraordinary” service to the poor or has improved the civil legal services delivery system.

As chair of the Maryland Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service, Coe has been instrumental in expanding pro bono efforts throughout the region. He is the recipient of many awards for his pro bono work, including the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award.

An example of Coe’s dedication to providing legal assistance to low-income people is his work on L.J. v. Massenga from 1986 to 1989 and with the named plaintiffs since then. The class-action lawsuit is a dispute with the state over the child foster care system in Baltimore.

“He was there at the beginning of the case, helped try it and argue it in the state’s first 4th Circuit appeal,” said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, a partner at Venable LLP who recently argued L.J. at the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. “I doubt we’d be where we are today if it weren’t for Ward.

“It’s about time,” Mirviss added. “No one is more deserving and no one in the private bar has done more to help disadvantaged folks than Ward.”

Second up is Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., Maryland Legal Aid’s executive director since 1996. He will be given the Benjamin L. Cardin Distinguished Service Award, presented annually to a public interest attorney.

While his tenure in Maryland is relatively brief, Joseph’s involvement with civil legal services goes back to the 1960s, when he was a student and civil rights activist in Mississippi.

After graduating from law school in the mid-1970s, he became executive director of North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. In the early 1980s, he moved to Legal Services for New York City, where he became director of the Legal Support Unit.

Joseph was recently identified as a “pivotal equal justice leader” by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and as one of the five most influential lawyers in Maryland for 2008 by The Daily Record.

Under Joseph’s leadership, funding for Legal Aid has grown from $8 million a year to more than $22 million. Today, Legal Aid provides access to justice for more than 50,000 Marylanders annually and is one of the largest legal services providers in the U.S.

“Wilhelm is a true world citizen who has brought a broad vision of social justice to Maryland,” said Suzanne Sangree, chair of the Maryland State Bar Association Delivery of Legal Services Section Council, which nominated Joseph. “He has built Maryland Legal Aid into an energized and effective advocate for the most vulnerable Marylanders. And he keeps challenging us to expand our notion of what it means to be part of the human family. We are so lucky that Wilhelm settled here.”

This year’s William L. Marbury Outstanding Advocate Award, given to a non-attorney who has served and represented low-income people, will be presented to Carole J. Alexander, former executive director of the House of Ruth.

Alexander, the program’s longest serving director, is credited for adding meaningful protections and services for domestic violence victims in Maryland and creating the House of Ruth’s legal services clinic, a national model.

“As the executive director from 1983 until 2009, Carole navigated the House of Ruth Maryland from a small, grassroots organization operating a small, row house shelter in Baltimore to one of the largest, most comprehensive domestic violence agencies in the U.S.,” said Dorothy Lennig, director of the House of Ruth Domestic Violence Legal Clinic.

“No individual in Maryland has done more to advance the legal rights and remedies for victims of domestic violence than Carole,” Lennig continued. “From bricks and mortar to protective orders available on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis, she has worked tirelessly on every front to provide a place and the means for battered women and their children to escape domestic violence and begin their lives anew.”

Additional awardees are two law firms, Dickstein Shapiro LLP and Hunton & Williams LLP, to be recognized for their pro bono services to immigrants, in cooperation with the Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services in Silver Spring and the Montgomery County Family Justice Center.

The MLSC board also is presenting awards to state Sen. Brian E. Frosh and Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, who worked to assure the passage of the filing fee surcharge legislation earlier this year.

Additionally, MLSC will recognize Marguerite Gardner for her service as administrative assistant for the Legal Services to the Elderly Program of the Bar Association of Baltimore City and to outgoing MLSC board member Douglas S. Snyder of Bowie.

The annual awards reception on Monday, Dec. 6, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel. Tickets are $60. For information, call 410-576-9494 or 800-492-1340.