Access to Justice awards given to 5 lawyers, 1 firm

Issue March 2010 By Kelsey Sadoff

Five attorneys and one law firm will be honored at the Massachusetts Bar Association's Access to Justice luncheon on Friday, March 12, as part of the MBA Annual Conference 2010.

The Access to Justice awards are bestowed upon those attorneys and law firms dedicated to helping others and enhancing the legal profession. This year's honorees include:

Patti A. Prunhuber
Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts, Worcester
Legal Services Award

"I have the best job," says Patti A. Prunhuber, who remains passionate about her work in legal services after almost 25 years in the field. Prunhuber, the litigation director at Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts in Worcester, has dedicated her career to advocating for low-income families and individuals, specializing in cases involving the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers with respect to unemployment compensation, health care, affordable housing and public benefits.

Prunhuber, who believes that when you go home, you have to feel you "did good in the world," became involved with civil legal services in law school and finds satisfaction in her work because of her supportive office environment, the intellectually challenging nature of her cases and the overall importance of legal services work.

"The most difficult part [of my job] is that the demand for legal assistance so outstrips the capacity [to provide it]," she said. "We have so many people that we have to turn down but who have pressing legal problems and are qualified for our services."

In 1985, at the beginning of her legal career, Prunhuber was a member of the employment, government benefits and housing units at Western Massachusetts Legal Services, and she recently initiated its employment law group. Also, Prunhuber chairs the Legal Services Employment Task Force.

Prunhuber cherishes the partnership that legal services advocates have with their clients, and says, "[You leave the] biggest mark where the client finds his/her voice." She explains that her clients often find their voices through the legal process.

Thomas E. Kosman
South Coastal Counties Legal Services Inc., Hyannis
Legal Services Award

For the last 28 years, Thomas E. Kosman has used his position as an elder law attorney on the Cape and the islands as an opportunity to "really get to know the low-income and elderly community, their needs and how to connect with them."

At South Coastal Counties Legal Services Inc., Kosman assists more than 300 elderly members yearly as the practice group leader for Elder Law Advocates, the lead attorney under the Medicare Advocacy Project, and as a participant in the statewide Elder Law Coalition.

"I was raised by a single mother after my father died, and while our situation wasn't one of dire poverty, we were certainly poor. My parents, too, had been raised in poverty; my father in an orphanage, my mother as one of 13 children of a tenant farmer, who in the depths of the Depression, defaulted on a chattel mortgage and watched all of his family's possessions auctioned off," said Kosman. "With this as my heritage, I have an all too natural empathy for the little guy, and a real desire to do what I can to level the playing field."

For attorneys thinking about doing work in legal services, Kosman notes that this type of law is not "exactly a growth industry. Flippancy aside, the economic tradeoffs that a career in legal services requires are well worth it - you get to work with some of the finest people you'll ever meet, you'd be entering a profession that has developed and commanded real respect from the bench and bar."

Fish & Richardson PC, Boston
Pro Bono Award for Law Firms

On the fourth Tuesday of every month, attorneys from Fish & Richardson PC in Boston staff the Lynn session of the Housing Court, representing low-income landlords and tenants in housing matters.

"With our focus on intellectual property, the idea that we would be integral partners in a program like this was really unthinkable 10 years ago," said Heidi E. Harvey, of counsel at Fish & Richardson. "By partnering with established organizations, like Neighborhood Legal Services, the VLA [Volunteer Lawyers of the Arts of Massachusetts], PAIR [Political Asylum/Immigration Representation project], and others, we made sure we always had access to real legal expertise. Our associates, who are incredibly bright and can learn any area of law, prove that competence and energy are the two critical skills to providing effective pro bono counseling."

Steadfast to its pro bono commitment to the Northeast Housing Court Law for a Day Program, Fish & Richardson has donated more than 2,300 attorney hours to the program.

"I would say the most challenging part of these cases is that the economic downturn last year made it difficult sometimes to find a good solution where both landlord and tenant were earnestly trying to meet their obligations but could not due to financial strains," said associate Danni Tang.

In 1992, when Fish only had three offices and 38 attorneys, Harvey started working on a pro bono immigration case. "I still represent that client," said Harvey, who explained that as the firm grew in offices and attorneys, its interest in and support of pro bono work also grew. "One of the most satisfying things to me is to look at the firm today, 18 years later, and see that firm-wide commitment to, and participation in, pro bono work," she said.

Michael P. Angelini
Bowditch & Dewey LLP, Worcester
Pro Bono Publico Award

Michael P. Angelini, who began his legal career in 1968 at Bowditch, Gowetz & Lane, is now the chairman of Bowditch & Dewey LLP in Worcester, where he practices business and finance, litigation and employment law.

"The best part of my job is problem-solving," said Angelini. "I think of the law as an instrument for the solution of problems and I think of myself as a problem-solver. It's easy to get hung up in the world of victories and losses, but the bottom line is to find a way to help people and to get to the right result with as little friction as possible. It doesn't always happen, but it is always worth the effort - and when it works, it's a joy to behold.

Angelini believes that for lawyers interested in pro bono work, you have to "jump in." He is the president of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation Inc. and United Way of Central Massachusetts, the former chairman of the Salvation Army Advisory Board, and the first chairman and founding director of the Massachusetts Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee.

In 1982, Angelini was instrumental in reorganizing groups responsible for the delivery of legal services to the poor in Worcester County and managed the combination of existing agencies into what is now the Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts. When LACCM faced drastic cuts in program revenues in 2009, Angelini took the time to create and implement a private bar campaign template for LACCM to use in future fundraising.

"This is hardly a duty," said Angelini. "It is much more of an opportunity and a blessing; and the pleasure of making a difference should not be overlooked."

Beth L. Eisenberg
CPCS, Somerville
Defender Award

The director of special litigation at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Somerville, Beth L. Eisenberg has dedicated her career to helping those in need.

"I started law school thinking I would go into some kind of labor practice. My father and mother were hardworking people who instilled a reverence for labor and unions in me," said Eisenberg, who shifted her legal aspirations as result of interning for attorneys Max Stern and Patty Garin.

"Max and Patty completely opened my eyes to a world of almost unimaginable devotion to the client, and virtuosic practice of the law. What I loved was that they gave their all to people who otherwise had nothing, and who expected to be invisible in society. Max and Patty made each client re-perceptible. It was thrilling," said Eisenberg.

She began her legal career in the tax department at Gaston & Snow, before practicing for a few years at CPCS and then Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. She also worked with the Center for Public Representation before returning to CPCS in 2001.

"Every case presents its own challenge, its own promise and its own difficulties that must be thought through," said Eisenberg. "Sometimes the challenge is to be a cold-eyed rationalist for clients in pain, and sometimes the challenge is to remain meticulous when you're dog-tired."

Eisenberg urges attorneys with an interest in criminal legal services to "not get discouraged when your heart is bigger than your substantive knowledge or technique. Just put your shoulder to the wheel and practice, practice, practice."

Michael C. Connolly
Norfolk County District Attorney
Prosecutor Award

After leaving private practice in 2006, Michael C. Connolly became chief of the district courts in the Norfolk County District Attorney's office, working as the prosecutor representative to the Norfolk Mental Health/Criminal Justice Partnership, and also helping to secure the grants to fund the program.

"My professional career has been based on public service," said Connolly. "I have always had the desire to work in a field that I can help people. As an attorney, there is no better place to work; no better place to make a difference, than in a district attorney's office."

With the grant money for the Norfolk Mental Health/Criminal Justice Partnership, Connolly established a pilot program in partnership with the Quincy mayor's office and the Quincy Police Department to assure the immediate treatment of mentally ill defendants.

"The easiest part of a prosecutor's job is what happens in the courtroom. The prosecution of crime is where the job starts, not ends, said Connolly. "ADAs need to have the perspective that it is not just about trying cases; it's about doing what is morally right."

Instrumental in establishing an avenue for access to justice for mentally ill citizens in Quincy and Norfolk County, Connolly has found that "in these difficult economic times, maintaining a focus on the task at hand - prosecuting criminal cases, while at the same time developing programming that will help in deterring or preventing crime - is extremely difficult."

"It's difficult to point to the best part of my job. I think it is the understanding that what you do makes a difference. People do not choose to become part of the criminal justice system - they are thrust into it," said Connolly. "If a victim can walk away with the understanding that they have been represented fairly and to the ADA's best ability, I take great satisfaction in that."