Access to Justice Award winners to be honored

Issue May 2014

The Massachusetts Bar Association's Access to Justice Awards will be given to five attorneys and one law firm, recognizing their exemplary legal skills and service to the community, at the MBA 2014 Annual Dinner at the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel on Thursday, May 15.

RISING STAR AWARD
Jessica Berry, Children's Law Center of Massachusettss

Jessica Berry interacts with everyone from newborns to 22-year-olds as part of her work as a staff attorney at the Children's Law Center of Massachusetts. But Berry has a special place in her heart for her work with teenagers because of their unique situation.

"Often times the people around them may be discouraged or have given up," says Berry, this year's Access to Justice Rising Star Award winner. "But the chance to get these kids into a better situation, or receive better services can really turn things around."

Berry graduated in 2007 from the University of Michigan Law School and joined the staff at the Children's Law Center of Massachusetts as a Skadden Fellow. Although she envisioned working with children ever since she was in high school, Berry never could have predicted she would end up in the position she's in today, where she has the ability to help so many young people in need.

As a lawyer, Berry is known for going above and beyond in every case and leaving no stone unturned. She also enjoys extending her advocacy beyond the courtroom to pursue changes in the law when she believes they are warranted. In short, she is a complete advocate for her clients.

In one instance, Berry met with a 21-year-old homeless woman with significant mental health issues who was in danger of losing custody of her child. Berry calmed the client, made numerous phone calls to homeless shelters and then drove the client halfway across the state to a shelter with a vacancy. She then prepared an appropriate, safe plan to present to the Department of Children and Families to prevent the baby's removal.

Work like this isn't anecdotal for attorney Berry. This type of personal dedication and commitment is what she does, day in and day out.

LEGAL SERVICES AWARD
Gerald D. Wall, Greater Boston Legal Services

Gerald D. Wall, this year's recipient of the Access to Justice Legal Services Award, may well be more invested in his work than any other attorney in the commonwealth. When he first started handling immigration cases with Greater Boston Legal Services a large percentage of them involved El Salvadorian refugees seeking asylum in the United States from violence and death squads during their home country's civil war. Not only did Wall advocate for many of these individuals, he and his wife pursued adoption, ultimately bringing in to their family a three-year-old son and 21-month-old daughter from El Salvador.

Since he was first admitted to the bar, Wall has spent his entire 40-year career as a legal services lawyer, beginning in April 1974 with the Boston Legal Aid Society, and continuing when that agency merged with the Boston Legal Assistance Project to become Greater Boston Legal Services.

Wall loves his work, and he credits his longevity to both the satisfaction he gets from making a direct impact on real clients, and the "hard work and collegial nature" of his like-minded co-workers.

As the most senior attorney in GBLS' Immigration Unit, Wall brings an expertise and passion to his work that is unmistakable to his clients and colleagues. Yet when asked about his reaction to receiving this award, all he found himself doing was thanking others for their work and passion.

PRO BONO PUBLICO AWARD
Stephen J. Phillips, Dunn & Phillips PC

For the past 13 years, attorney Stephen J. Phillips has worked with more than 130 hospice patients at Baystate Visiting Nurse & Hospice, where he has assisted them with everything from drafting wills to counseling on end-of-life matters. But sometimes his greatest work comes when he just spends time with them to watch a Red Sox/Yankee game.

Phillips is this year's Access to Justice Pro Bono Publico Award Winner. His skill at addressing the legal needs of hospice patients is only surpassed by his reputation for going outside the role of counsel when he feels that's what his clients need. Calling pro bono an "honor, not a chore," Phillips says the times when he's had the "honor of feeding a hospice patient" or adjusted their bed are some of the best things about working with his pro bono clients.

After seeing the nature of his selfless work, it's no wonder Phillips' reaction to being this year's award recipient was met with one word: "humbled." Phillips said he plans to accept the award not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of all the staff and nurses at Baystate Visiting Nurse & Hospice, and everyone else who works to ensure dignified care.

This kind of work is something he'd like to see future generations continue to do. When asked what he'd say to a young lawyer or law student who was considering this type of work, Phillips' answer was simple and direct: "Do it."

PRO BONO AWARD FOR LAW FIRMS
Klein Hornig LLP

Klein Hornig LLP, this year's recipient of the Access to Justice Pro Bono Award for Law Firms, has found a way to successfully balance business interests while also bettering the community at large. The firm was founded on the principles of applying smart, efficient and durable legal solutions to the development and preservation of affordable housing and community revitalization for nonprofit sponsors as well as for profit companies. While its lawyers focus exclusively on affordable housing and community development, the firm strongly encourages them to do pro bono work in their communities, even if it's outside the scope of their traditional work.

Klein Hornig lawyers have provided pro bono legal assistance to many different community projects, tenant organizations and individuals, with respect to housing tax credits, subsidized rental assistance and tax-exempt financing. They've worked with Coalition of Occupied Homes in Foreclosure, for example, an organization that works to keep homeowners and tenants to remain in their homes after foreclosure.

Whether helping a local food bank incorporate or assisting low-income residents in their fight against foreclosure or eviction, every attorney at Klein Hornig can tell a personal story or two about the pro bono work they've done and how supportive the community has been. At Klein Hornig, each and every day is filled with work aimed at bettering communities -- and Klein Hornig attorneys feel privileged to be able to do pro bono work.

DEFENDER AWARD
James B. Krasnoo, Krasnoo | Klehm LLP

When representing a client for the first time, attorney James B. Krasnoo has a saying: "There is always something good you can say about a client; even a murderer is loved by his mother." Krasnoo's clients and fellow attorneys, on the other hand, probably have no shortage of good things to say about him, where zealous advocacy and seeing the best in people have been some of the hallmarks of his career as a bar advocate.

Krasnoo, this year's Defender Award honoree, has won his share of big cases, such as last year's Commonwealth v. Ortiz, 84 Mass. App.Ct. 258 (2013), where the Appeals Court held that certain statements in a murder trial were inadmissible because of interrogation tactics used by law enforcement. But his impact on clients extends well beyond his reported cases.

Krasnoo, who started his legal career at the Attorney General's office, always knew he wanted to be a trial attorney, but when he began to see the problems of inadequate defense, found himself drawn - or pulled - into the work of a bar advocate. Krasnoo tells a story of being cornered by two judges, who told him some disturbing news about defendants taking guilty pleas on weak facts. Before long, Krasnoo took on the role of bar advocate with the goal of representing the underrepresented and changing things.

A career later, Krasnoo is still fighting for his clients for the same reasons he started all those years ago. He practices regularly in criminal and civil court, which he likens to "driving both a stick shift and an automatic car." And he says the variety keeps him on his toes and makes him a sharper lawyer in each.

Krasnoo's service doesn't stop with his clients. He serves as a mentor to several younger attorneys, and if he could give one piece of advice to a new lawyer, he says: "Find someone you can call once you've read over the police report, someone who you can bounce ideas off of and who will tell you what they think."

PROSECUTOR AWARD
Lisa F. Edmonds, District Attorney's Office for the Cape and Islands

Lisa F. Edmonds is this year's Prosecutors Award recipient, and while she always knew she wanted to get involved with public service after law school, she initially thought it would be on the other side of the courtroom.

During her 3L year, Edmonds was in the defenders clinic at Suffolk University Law School and later worked for the Committee for Public Counsel Services as an intern. But when an opportunity presented itself with the Cape and Islands District Attorney's office, she took it head on. Now more than 15 years later, Edmonds is blazing a trail for others to follow.

One of the things that really swayed Edmonds was the District Attorney's willingness to have ADAs pull innovative ideas from outside the office. As such, in 1999 Edmonds spearheaded the creation of a Juvenile Diversion Program, which allowed first time nonviolent youth offenders to preserve their record by engaging in community service, counseling and showing personal responsibility. Offenders sign a contract with the DA's office, and upon its fulfillment, avoid the negative externalities of a criminal record. The Cape and Island's model has been picked up and replicated all over now.

But Edmonds eye for innovative practices in the pursuit of justice didn't stop in 1999. Since becoming Chief of the Domestic Violence unit, she has implemented a High Risk Task Force, which brings together law enforcement, social service agencies, domestic violence advocates and the DA's office to identify and target cases where there is a great risk of homicide or an escalation of violence.

Despite dealing with such tragic cases, Edmonds is always impressed by the victims she works with. "Often times I meet people at the lowest and most challenging part of their lives, but I'm always impressed when they are able to find their voice and stand up for themselves, often for the first time," she says.