The Massachusetts Bar Association's Access to Justice Awards will honor six attorneys and one law firm, recognizing their exemplary legal skills and service to the community. The awards will be presented at the sold-out 2019 Annual Dinner at the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel on Thursday, May 9.
In the profiles that follow, meet the winners of the 2019 Access to Justice Awards. We also invite you to learn more about this year’s honorees and the stories behind their awards on the newest episode of the MassBar Beat podcast, hosted by Jordan Rich.
ADRIAN BISPHAMSuffolk County District Attorney's Office
Career prosecutor Adrian Bispham believes that people should not be defined by their worst moments, nor immediately judged for the crimes they may have previously committed. He has held true to these core principles throughout his seven-year tenure with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, all while immersing himself in community affairs and promoting legal empowerment among citizens young and old.
The current supervising assistant district attorney of West Roxbury District Court, Bispham traces his interest in prosecutorial work to an early internship at the Boston Municipal Court’s East Boston Division. There, he came to fully appreciate the important level of discretion granted to prosecutors, as well as their equal capacity to support crime victims and pursue rehabilitative sentences in lieu of incarceration for certain defendants.
For Bispham, the need to treat offenders as individuals and see beyond their criminal records was particularly apparent when he visited an area correctional institution for the Restorative Justice Responsibility Retreat. Bispham said the experience illustrated how feelings of remorse and time in prison can truly change people for the better, and that hearing inmate stories of personal trauma offered context into even the most serious crimes.
As a man of color employed in the legal profession, Bispham has also used his platform to help bridge the divide between local minority groups and members of the criminal justice system. By participating alongside the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association in "Know Your Rights" community forums, Bispham works to provide Boston-area youth with an improved understanding of the law and the confidence to advocate for themselves.
"I don’t see the primary focus of my job as sending people to jail. To be a good prosecutor, I have to know about the community and be actively involved in the community," Bispham said.
PRO BONO PUBLICO AWARDSTEPHEN A. SMITH
Law Office of Stephen Smith
Lawyers fight for their clients — that’s what they do. So, it’s only natural for a lawyer drawn to volunteer service like Stephen A. Smith to use his advocacy skills to help those less fortunate through pro bono service. As the Millis sole practitioner explains it, “When we’re committing ourselves to charity, we can borrow from the medical community’s principle of practicing at the top of your license. There are only so many people who can help with housing issues, criminal defense, and debt collection.”
Driven by this sense of obligation to the greater good, Smith has distinguished himself within the legal profession as a firm advocate for indigent clients and a faithful participant in community programs. Smith, who focuses his practice on criminal and civil litigation, makes a point of carving out time each month to volunteer for the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Dial-A-Lawyer program and the Bar Association of Norfolk County’s Evening Legal Clinic, among many others.
Smith said he consistently attends the two programs to ensure that they are properly staffed and able to accommodate the public demand for both basic and more substantive legal advice. He also feels compelled to honor the work of the dedicated MBA employees who coordinate all aspects of Dial-A-Lawyer and optimize the experience for participating attorneys.
As a practitioner, Smith has accepted pro bono cases to repay his initial good fortune in earning admission to Boston College Law School and to touch a broader segment of the court-involved population. Ten years after an interviewer asked Smith to describe his background in serving low-income individuals, he says he now fully appreciates the significance of the question and the fundamental behavioral differences between economic classes.
"If I’m only representing people who can afford my rates, then I’m limiting my own professional experience," Smith said.
LEGAL SERVICES AWARDLUZ A. ARÉVALOGreater Boston Legal Services
While tax season brings out feelings of stress in people at all income levels, the strain on immigrants and members of other marginalized communities is especially high. Greater Boston Legal Services Senior Attorney Luz A. Arévalo, herself a Colombian immigrant and the product of a working-class family, oversees her organization’s Low-Income Tax Clinic with a unique degree of compassion and empathy for the clients she serves.
With program eligibility limited to individuals earning below $30,000, Arévalo said most of her clients struggle each day to keep themselves and their families afloat, leaving them little time to focus on completing their tax returns. Arévalo added that low-income filers, particularly those born in foreign countries, are often overly trusting of tax professionals and therefore unlikely to question whether they have actually received sound financial advice.
As a legal services attorney, Arévalo aims to treat people with the same respect and dignity shown to her parents when they arrived in the United States with minimal English skills and needed legal assistance. Arévalo has followed this lasting example of effective attorney-client relations while providing support to a vastly underserved but equally resilient segment of the population.
"My clients are among the most remarkable people that I’ve met," Arévalo said. "They have seen the worst that other human beings can do to people, and yet they’re grateful to be here and to get help."
In addition to her work on behalf of individual clients, Arévalo has been actively involved in amending state policies to better serve the interests of taxpayers across the commonwealth, and specifically women in vulnerable positions. Most notably, she was instrumental in the recent passage of legislation extending innocent-spouse relief to joint tax filers, and in the adoption of a first-in-the-nation measure allowing domestic violence victims to safely access the Earned Income Tax Credit.
DEFENDER AWARDTINIA L. SNOWCommittee for Public Counsel Services
As a trial attorney for juvenile defendants still working to discover their identities, Tinia L. Snow is the latest in her family to find professional fulfillment in the role of legal advocate. Employed in the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Snow has earned widespread peer recognition for her compassionate representation of indigent clients in delinquency and youthful offender cases.
Snow’s approach to juvenile defense often centers on presenting a fuller and more human picture of her clients, many of whom are charged as first-time felony offenders based on momentary instances of poor behavior or judgment. Specifically, Snow seeks to ensure that student defendants can continue their educational pursuits and are defined not by isolated incidents, but rather by their home lives, prior accomplishments and future aspirations.
"As an advocate, part of your job is making others aware that the police report they see before them that describes a four-minute or two-minute incident is not who this person is," said Snow, who credits her mother and grandmother, both formerly of Boston-based Aid to Incarcerated Mothers, with inspiring her sense of service.
In one of her more memorable cases, Snow represented an autistic teenager facing serious charges because of his tendency to act out when he became frustrated with himself or other students. Snow said her client’s life improved dramatically once he was placed in an appropriately sized high school, illustrating the importance of stability in shaping adolescent behavior and development.
As president of the Massachusetts Black Women Attorneys, Snow has devoted her remaining energy to supporting and strengthening the voice of fellow female lawyers of color. Snow, who described her election to the presidency as a tremendous honor, said the organization serves a vital purpose within the legal profession by celebrating the achievements of black women and reminding them that they are not alone.
PRO BONO AWARD FOR LAW FIRMSSHERIN AND LODGEN LLP
The Boston law firm of Sherin and Lodgen LLP took on its first pro bono asylum case in 2009, when a Ugandan man persecuted for his political activism sought refuge in the United States. Led by partner Jessica G. Kelly, who chairs the firm’s pro bono practice and helped the man win permanent residency and eventual citizenship, Sherin and Lodgen LLP has since donated more than 800 volunteer hours to fellow clients of the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project.
At a firm where attorneys are encouraged to channel their individual passions into meaningful pro bono work, Kelly has focused on immigration law to ensure that foreign-born individuals maintain their right to escape oppression in pursuit of better lives. Although Massachusetts courts traditionally exercise fairness in handling immigration cases, Kelly said, federal restrictions targeting legal asylum seekers undermine the country’s fundamental values and rich cultural identity.
"Immigrants are the backbone of our country," motivated by the promise of safety and opportunity and eager to become productive citizens, Kelly said. "By trying to keep those people out, we’re really missing out on valuable resources."
Through her firm’s 10-year partnership with PAIR, Kelly has also come to greatly appreciate the emotional strength of those who endure unimaginable hardship in their home countries, only to face the newfound uncertainty of securing U.S. residency. In one notable instance, Kelly was moved close to tears when her client, a Spanish-speaking mother of two and a victim of severe domestic violence, received her official welcome to the United States.
Besides its pro bono service to immigrants, Sherin and Lodgen LLP has provided more than 20 years of life-saving legal assistance to an Alabama death-row inmate and frequently submitted amicus briefs to expand anti-discrimination protections in the workplace.
RISING STAR AWARDGINA PLATA-NINOCentral West Justice Center
Gina Plata-Nino has devoted much of her early professional life to addressing the many causes of hunger and ensuring that low-income individuals never have to place other needs above feeding themselves or their families.
As a staff attorney at Central West Justice Center in Worcester, Plata-Nino represents food-insecure clients forced to overcome disabilities, language differences and a perceived stigma in order to successfully apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She also works with state and federal agencies to eliminate systemic barriers to food access, such as the recent denial of SNAP benefits to homeless residents served regular meals while living in shelters.
“Sometimes, people of different social and economic backgrounds are not viewed or treated with the same dignity as everyone else, and that’s why our job is so important,” said Plata-Nino, who co-chairs the Central Massachusetts SNAP Coalition.
Already an accomplished advocate shortly into her career, Plata-Nino notably played an active role in housing and feeding Puerto Rican citizens who traveled to Massachusetts to escape the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Plata-Nino said she took on the added responsibility of connecting evacuees to local resources because few people had come forward to ensure the welfare and rights of their fellow American citizens.
More recently, Plata-Nino joined a collaborative effort focused on ending hunger at state and community colleges, where food insecurity only compounds the existing pressures of post-secondary education, she said.
In addition to her efforts to combat hunger, Plata-Nino has quietly worked to alleviate poverty in Southeast Asia as co-founder and president of the Oon Jai Foundation. Plata-Nino, who had grown to love the region and its people during her brief stay as an attorney, established the organization in 2015 to promote personal empowerment through practical, sustainable and healthy living.
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Thirty-plus years into her distinguished career as a champion of tenants’ rights and housing access, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) Senior Staff Attorney Judith Liben still believes she has more to accomplish. Liben, who entered her current field at a time of landmark change to federal and state housing and landlord-tenant law, has helped achieve similar policy victories as both a litigator and advocate in a wide range of forums.
In the early days of the recession, in 2007, Liben appeared before lawmakers on Capitol Hill to bring attention to the plight of tenants living in residential properties threatened with foreclosure. Liben’s powerful testimony to the House Committee on Financial Services, compiled from firsthand interviews with local community organizations and legal aid attorneys across the country, proved instrumental in the swift passage of the federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act and similar legislation here in Massachusetts.
Employed by MLRI since 1989, Liben also relishes her shared role in lobbying state housing officials to institute a lottery system for low-income applicants to the Section 8 program. Massachusetts ended its practice of issuing program vouchers on a first-come, first-served basis after MLRI filed a 1997 federal discrimination complaint supported by video evidence of Fall River residents waiting in long lines just to apply for assistance.
For all the positive changes she and others have engineered, Liben remains focused on addressing chronic inequities in the housing system, from the severe shortage of affordable homes to the effective blacklisting of rental applicants with any history of court involvement.
"One of the most gratifying things about working at Mass. Law Reform is how it allows me the chance to work in a variety of ways with clients, colleagues and community groups." Liben said.
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