Access to Justice Award winners to be honored at Annual Dinner

Issue May 2015

The Massachusetts Bar Association's Access to Justice Awards will be given to six attorneys and one law firm, recognizing their exemplary legal skills and service to the community this month at the MBA's 2015 Annual Dinner at the Westin Boston Waterfront.

Honorees

  • Adriana Lafaille, Rising Star Award
  • Elizabeth Toulan, Legal Services Award
  • Ropes & Gray LLP, Pro Bono Award for Law Firms
  • Brian McLaughlin, Pro Bono Publico Award
  • Benjamin Evans, Defender Award
  • Jonathan Miller, Prosecutor Award
  • Willard P. Ogburn, Lifetime Achievement Award

 

Rising Star Award

Adriana Lafaille

American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts

As a native of Brazil, Adriana Lafaille constantly saw families being separated by deportations. Even as a young child, she thought there must be a more fair and humane way to handle immigration - so she decided to do something about it. Lafaille came to the United States when she was five, graduated from Harvard Law School and now advocates for immigrant rights as a legal fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts.

"I went to law school because of what I saw happening in the community around me," said Lafaille. "As lawyers we all have a set of skills that we can employ to help make the lives of those around us a little bit better."

Her most meaningful work has centered on the case of Gordon v. Johnson, in which the ACLU and its partners obtained a class action ruling allowing more than 100 detainees a year in Massachusetts to be eligible for individual bond hearings when placed in mandatory immigration detention. To date, more than 50 detainees, including Lafaille's client, have been released from immigration detention under a court order.

Lafaille has also spearheaded a pro bono effort to provide legal counsel for detainees at their bond hearings by enlisting the help of law firms such as Greenburg Traurig LLP, Foley Hoag LLP and WilmerHale. 

"I feel very lucky that I've had the chance to work with really great lawyers who have helped me to grow and who have always placed a lot of emphasis on mentorship, which is the best thing you can have as a young attorney," said Lafaille.

Prior to her fellowship at the ACLU of Massachusetts, Lafaille clerked for Hon. Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court and Hon. Mark L. Wolf in the U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts.

Legal Services Award

Elizabeth Toulan

Greater Boston Legal Services

Elizabeth Toulan considers it an "incredible privilege" that she's been able to help serve low-income, marginalized and often exploited populations during her legal career as a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS).

As part of a team effort that involved decades of work, Toulan helped bring about an earned sick time benefit under Massachusetts law through a ballot question, which voters passed in November 2014. The lack of any earned sick time has had a serious effect on low-wage families and a particularly devastating impact on poor working mothers. The new law, which is set to take effect on July 1, will provide earned sick time to 1 million workers in the commonwealth, or more than 30 percent of the workforce who currently have no access to such a benefit. 

After the success of the ballot question, Toulan is working with others, such as the Attorney General's Office and the Secretary of the Commonwealth's Office, to have the new law implemented so that it provides protections to those who are most in need of its benefits.

Specifically noting the work of GBLS Employment Law Unit Lead Attorney Monica Halas, Toulan points out that the earned sick time benefit was ultimately the result of many different constituencies working together toward a common goal.

"This award is really an award that belongs to Greater Boston Legal Services as a whole and not me as an individual," said Toulan. "If it wasn't for members of the private bar who go up to the State House and speak to their legislators and fight for increased funding for legal aid we could not do this work."

In addition to 14 years at GBLS, Toulan's career also includes work at the Department of Children and Families, private practice and coordinating the Family Economic Initiative at GBLS.

Pro Bono Award for Law Firms

Ropes & Gray LLP

Ropes & Gray LLP has a history of being responsive to the needs of the community, which dates back to its founding. The firm was selected as the recipient of the Access to Justice Pro Bono Award for Law Firms for the depth and breadth of its ongoing commitment to pro bono projects.

In 2014, more than 1,200 Ropes & Gray LLP professionals (partners, associates, paralegals and retired partners) spent more than 106,000 hours assisting pro bono clients. In Massachusetts alone, professionals from the firm logged approximately 50,000 hours of pro bono service last year.

Two of the most successful pro bono projects the firm conducts in the commonwealth are the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative, an innovative program aimed at reducing recidivism among young men, and the Medical Legal Partnership, which helps local families and patients with health care and legal concerns at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center (Dot House).

The Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative involved approximately 20 corporate lawyers at Ropes & Gray LLP, who spent a total of 1,500 hours on the project. These attorneys negotiated and drafted 27 separate contracts with funding providers, which provide counseling, life skills, education and vocational training for more than 900 young men aged 17 to 23 in Boston, Chelsea and Springfield. Ropes & Gray LLP and Third Sector Capital Partners were honored by the Boston Business Journal with the "Partners of the Year" award for their work on the project.

"Corporate lawyers are often seen as the villains of Wall Street, so to be able to do something like this was extremely gratifying," said partner Winthrop G. Minot, who oversaw the firm's involvement in the program.

Ropes & Gray LLP has been a part of the Medical Legal Partnership at Dot House since 2008. For more than 100 years, Dot House has served as a health center for low-income and immigrant populations. Many of the families and individuals being treated for health problems have underlying legal issues stemming from poverty and a lack of effective resources.

Professionals from Ropes & Gray LLP help train medical personnel to screen for potential legal issues and also meet with Dot House clients to assure they are getting the right assistance in areas, such as housing, utilities, immigration, education, public benefits and family law. More than 500 Ropes & Gray LLP professionals have spent more than 49,000 hours on the project during the last seven years. More than 250 patients and their families have been served by the program.

The Medical Legal Partnership recently received national recognition by being presented with the American Bar Association's 2015 Outstanding Medical-Legal Partnership Pro Bono Advocacy Award.

Pro Bono Publico Award

Brian J. McLaughlin

Brian J. McLaughlin, Attorney at Law

Giving back through pro bono work and community service has become second nature for sole practitioner Brian McLaughlin, the recipient of the Access to Justice Pro Bono Publico Award. A native of Easton and a graduate of Boston College Law School, McLaughlin handles cases involving family law, special needs issues, unemployment and mediation. He has been practicing in Boston since 2009. 

Some of his most meaningful pro bono projects have been family law and domestic violence cases involving clients of a battered women's shelter, which have come to him through working with the Women's Bar Foundation. On the urban transportation front, McLaughlin has also strongly advocated for those with disabilities by working for more wheelchair access in Boston's taxi cabs. He has given countless presentations concerning disabilities and accessibility issues and was featured in the Boston Globe in 2010 as part of a wheelchair accessible task force sting.

McLaughlin serves on the board of Shelter Legal Services where he has done pro bono cases for veterans in housing and civil litigation matters. He is also a board member for Easter Seals Massachusetts and frequently volunteers with the Volunteer Lawyer of the Day program at Suffolk County Probate and Family Court. In addition, McLaughlin handles pro bono family law cases for the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Senior Partners for Justice.

The way McLaughlin sees it, lawyers are in a unique class and have a responsibility to give back through pro bono work and community service.

"When you're a lawyer, you're given the gift of education," he said. "My clients give back to me much more than I give to them."

By being involved in several different types of pro bono cases, McLaughlin has been able to gain experience in many areas of the law - experience that he necessarily wouldn't get from specializing in one or two practice areas.
"When you do pro bono work and meet with clients, you might be the only lawyer they've ever met in their life so you have to know a little bit about everything," he said.

Defender Award

Benjamin Evans

Committee for Public Counsel Services -- Public Defender Division

When public defender Benjamin Evans is first assigned a case, his priority is letting the client know that someone is in their corner. For some of the defendants Evans represents, this will be a first for them.

Working as the Fall River supervising attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), Evans must balance the duty of providing a high level of service with maintaining large numbers of clients appointed to him by the court. But each case is unique and, for Evans, everything comes together when he sees a client's face when a jury returns a verdict of "not guilty."

But criminal defendants aren't Evans' only "clients." The Fall River CPCS Office runs a robust internship program that gives young law students and those who are Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3.03 certified the opportunity to immerse themselves in criminal cases in District Court. Like legal apprenticeships from days gone by, Evans said he thinks practical experience while in law school is critical to the successful practice of law, especially criminal defense. 

This may be because of the great lessons he learned as a student intern. "As a law student in 2005 I was fortunate to intern at what was then Stern Shapiro Weissberg & Garin LLP. I had the amazing opportunity to help Jonathan Shapiro while he tried a four co-defendant murder case," Evans said. "Watching those lawyers try that case every day for six weeks was a real education."

Prosecutor Award

Jonathan Miller

Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau of the Attorney General's Office

This past March, Jonathan Miller became the chief of the Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau of the Attorney General's Office - a position that oversees six separate state divisions that work together to enforce laws that protect the citizens of Massachusetts, including civil rights laws, access to justice for all residents, affordable health care and more. It's a job Jonathan Miller is deeply committed to, having served in the Attorney General's Office since 2008 and as the chief of the Civil Rights Division since 2012.

"I really like helping people. I really wanted to find work that I could feel passionate about, that I felt was making a difference, both in terms of big issues that we grapple with as a state, as a community, as a society, but also on an individual level," said Miller. "And what keeps me here is that the challenges are ongoing, they are diverse and extensive and significant, but they are great to engage with."

Miller's career in the Attorney General's Office has been highlighted by work on groundbreaking cases, including challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and a successful predatory lending case against Option One Mortgage Corp. In the last year, Miller also played an active role in the defense of the Massachusetts buffer zone law, which restricted speech outside abortion facilities. When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously struck down the law, it was "very disappointing to lose," but Miller and his team then turned the loss into a win. They worked with the state Legislature and fellow advocates to create a bill, passed by the Legislature within a month that ensured ongoing protections for women to safely access reproductive health care facilities.

"I get to work on stuff that affects people's lives on a daily basis on issues that people really care and feel passionate about, whether it is access to reproductive health care, access to jobs and housing, or something like marriage equality," said Miller. "These are the issues that at the end of the day I think most people are thinking about and are concerned about. And it is an incredible privilege to do that [work]."

Lifetime Achievement Award

Willard P. Ogburn

National Consumer Law Center

When Willard P. Ogburn began his role as executive director of the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) in 1987, the organization was a government funded backup center for legal services programs. Today, nearly 30 years later, the NCLC uses no government funding and is one of the premier advocacy groups in the country. The organization is now widely known as the primary source for consumer law experts in America.

Ogburn, the recipient of the Access to Justice Lifetime Achievement Award, has played a key role in the transformation of the NCLC throughout the last three decades. He has represented low-income consumers in consumer and energy issues, and has helped shape major federal and state consumer protection laws and policies.

Under Ogburn's leadership, the NCLC's work has centered on helping low-income individuals and families who have been victims of unfair, deceptive or abusive practices in financial transactions. The organization was instrumental in passing credit card reforms through congress including some aspects of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. NCLC also helped create the Truth In Lending Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

"Our whole mission is to better the lives of low-income families in Massachusetts and across the country," said Ogburn. "It's really difficult for low-income consumers to have a big voice in the policies and rules of the marketplace that affect them. Even when they do have an ally like the NCLC, it's often David going against Goliath."

Ogburn began his career as a consumer law attorney in Cleveland before joining the Boston-based NCLC in 1974. He became deputy director in 1979, before taking over as executive director eight years later. Ogburn also served two years as Deputy Commissioner of Banking in the administration of former Governor Michael S. Dukakis.

"The ability to work in consumer law as I have has been rewarding because we've been able to make changes in the way the marketplace works, the way it affects low-income families and things that are at the root of their poverty," said Ogburn.