Heather King 2016-04-23 12:55:16
Case Study Family law attorneys pay it forward for two decades I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. —Maya Angelou Developed more than two decades ago for the sole purpose of family law attorneys giving back to Texas communities, the Essentials of Family Law Pro Bono Seminars were a brainchild of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. The then-newly created Pro Bono Committee of the Family Law Section developed the idea that volunteer attorneys, at their own personal expense, would travel across the state presenting continuing legal education in remote areas where family law seminars were all but nonexistent, including San Angelo, El Paso, Big Spring, La Grange, Laredo, Del Rio, Alpine, and Victoria, to name just a few of the more than 40 locations. In return for the CLE credits and written materials, each attendee would commit to providing pro bono representation to two indigent family law litigants over the following 12-month period. Not long before the Family Law Section’s pro bono program was conceived, David McClure from El Paso was the chair of the section and James B. Sales from Houston was the president of the State Bar of Texas. Sales requested that each section of the State Bar create a pro bono committee. In response, McClure developed a plan for the Family Law Section to become more involved in finding attorneys and giving them incentives to represent indigent family law litigants. It was his idea to put on family law CLE sessions in areas around the state that did not traditionally have large-scale seminars. To accomplish this goal, McClure, along with the Family Law Council, formed the Pro Bono Committee and appointed Gary L. Nickelson of Fort Worth, who currently serves on the State Bar of Texas Board of Directors, to be the first chair. Nickelson and his committee developed the current program that continues to provide free CLE in exchange for the agreement to accept cases pro bono. The first Family Law Section pro bono family law seminar took place in Midland in 1995. Eight papers from TexasBarCLE’s most recent Advanced Family Law Course were handed out at the seminar (with permission of the authors), and well-known and well-qualified (often board-certified) local lawyers spoke. It was a true grassroots effort. At that first seminar, the speakers presented the papers to approximately 60 attendees, and the local legal aid provider then assigned each attendee two pro bono clients to represent. Nickelson recently shared a memory of the early days: I didn’t know what to expect from the first seminar, but we had Midland District Judge Dean Rucker helping us whip up the enthusiasm. We were kind of shocked at the large turnout. But it helped us to better understand that there was a need, and that family law attorneys were willing to help out by providing representation to indigent litigants. We gave them an incentive and value for their help. TexasBarCLE assisted and continues to assist the section by advertising within a 25 to 100-mile radius. Often, a local sponsor will provide lunch, and if not, the section pays for it or TexasBarCLE or individual firms sponsor it. The seminars are often concluded with a panel of local judges discussing and opining about practice in their courts, invaluable information to any attorney and especially one new to the practice of family law. The idea behind that first seminar has grown to such an extent that the Pro Bono Committee has divided itself into several subcommittees addressing small-, medium-, and large-scale communities and also working on incorporating webinars. Since 2001, when the section began keeping records of attendance, the Pro Bono Committee has organized and directed an average of six seminars each year in six geographical locations around the state. Thousands of attorney hours and dollars, all completely gratis, contributed to the funding and presenting of these seminars. The number of lawyers who attend each seminar ranges anywhere from 15 to 90. The system thus far has more than 2,500 attorney CLE attendees and more than 5,000 indigent litigants represented. Each attendee is provided with a course book that contains approximately eight CLE articles from the most recent Advanced Family Law Course and/or Marriage Dissolution Institute, the two largest live family law seminars presented by TexasBarCLE. The Pro Bono Committee and its subcommittees continue to work diligently each year to select the eight best and most relevant CLE papers, all of which were researched, prepared, and authored by some of the most talented and gifted family law attorneys in the state. The committee also works toward selecting the locations around the state where the seminars are needed most. These events also allow lawyers who are looking for a public speaking opportunity to gain valuable experience in front of an audience. Speakers at our pro bono seminars pay their own expenses. They are not reimbursed for travel, gas, meals, or hotels. Their services are 100 percent voluntary. They provide this service out of a deep commitment to the idea David McClure had more than 20 years ago. They think of themselves as part of a greater family law community, one that enjoys the privilege of its training and trade but also bears the weight of responsibility on its shoulders. The author would like to thank Gary L. Nickelson for his contributions to this article. HEATHER KING is the chair of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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