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Bar News - October 18, 2017

NH Attorneys Share ‘Pro Bono Moments’

The New Hampshire Bar Association and its members have a proud heritage of providing legal help to the poor and disadvantaged citizens of the Granite State. To celebrate this long history and continued commitment to striving for equal justice, regardless of a person’s income or status, Bar News asked NHBA members to submit their favorite “Pro Bono Moment.”

These moments can happen in the courtroom, but more often they occur after the case is over, when the attorney receives a heartfelt thank-you from the client or learns some important lessons from a mentor, or simply has time to reflect on having helped someone change his or her circumstances for the better. Sometimes, those new circumstances mean a whole new life for a person who was teetering on the edge of survival.

What follows are the “Pro Bono Moment” submissions we received, some of which have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

William Bryk

While I was living and practicing from Brooklyn, New York, a former client referred an older woman to me. She was hopelessly in debt and needed to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. She didn’t have money for the fee. Her daughter offered to pay it. I knew she couldn’t afford it either. I told them that I would take the case on the arm. I then filed, successfully obtained a waiver of the filing fee, and represented her at the meeting of creditors. Afterwards, both mother and daughter embraced me. That was fee enough.

– William M. Bryk,
Law Office of William Bryk

Dennis Haley Jr.

The importance of doing pro-bono work really hit home for me when I was working with an elderly and disabled client (legally blind, and an amputee) who was facing foreclosure and was being sued by a number of credit card companies for outstanding bills. I helped him resolve those issues, and worked to provide him a fresh start with new housing and discharges of his debt. It was very fulfilling for me to be able to help in this way, and a good reminder that on my worst day, I am so much more fortunate that many others.

– Dennis J. Haley Jr.,
McLane Middleton

Kirk Simoneau

My most memorable pro bono experience was, as is often the case, my first. I wasn’t even a lawyer. I was a third-year law student working with the legendary David L. Nixon. Dave was working on a DOVE case that the defense had appealed to the NH Supreme Court. Dave walked into my tiny office and tossed the defendant’s brief on my desk, saying “John Broderick (chief justice at the time) and I aren’t getting along too well these days; we’d have better luck if a moron like you handled this one.”

I did the research and told Dave that, on the law, we lose. My instructions were simple: “Lawyers, good lawyers, don’t let the law decide; they decide the law.” I was to make the law what it needed to be.

After I was admitted to the Bar, Dave told me I was going to argue the case. In preparation, Dave had the late Chief David Brock prep me for the argument. Sitting in a booth at the Cornerview Restaurant in Concord, Judge Brock told me that if I could be a little less excitable and end my argument five minutes before my time was up, I’d win. I did.

To me, the most memorable moment was after the argument. Dave and I went to lunch to debrief. I asked how I did. He said, “Damned if I know, I couldn’t hear a damn thing. Next time, speak up.” After we got the order, Dave told me: “Guess you were better than I thought.” While it may seem like he was callous from the retelling, it was all in jest. Most importantly, I played a small part in expanding the protection available to victims of domestic violence.

– Kirk Simoneau,
Nixon, Vogelman, Barry, Slawsky & Simoneau

Mark Knights

Several years ago, I accepted a pro bono referral from Lutheran Social Services. The client, Antonio, was a 15-year-old Mexican youth who was in deportation proceedings before the immigration court in Boston. The story of how Antonio had come to live in the US was incredible: he had been abandoned by his parents at the age of 4 and left in the care of his (only slightly) older sister. At 11, he dropped out of school – which he had only sporadically attended in the first place – to work in a factory to support himself. At 14, he took his meager savings, travelled to the US/Mexico border, and paid a coyote to smuggle him across the border in the dead of the night. (As he could speak virtually no English at the time, Antonio told this story with the aid of an interpreter.)

I delayed Antonio’s deportation long enough to obtain a green card for him under USCIS’s Special Immigrant Juveniles program, which enables undocumented children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by their parents to become lawful permanent residents of the United States. Now, eight years later, Antonio speaks excellent English, has obtained a four-year degree from a college in the United States, and is working in law enforcement. And I’m representing him pro bono yet again – this time, in connection with his application to become a naturalized United States citizen.

– Mark T. Knights,
Nixon Peabody

Beth Fowler

For me, the most gratifying part of pro bono work is bettering someone’s situation. A particularly memorable moment was on a case where I helped a client resolve an issue with the IRS. This was an issue that had been ongoing for more than a decade and the client had given up. It took multiple years working with the adult client, his father, and his uncle to prepare appropriate documentation and convince the client a resolution was possible. Hearing from a client that you changed his life and gave him the will to live life fully again is a special feeling.”

– Beth L. Fowler,
McLane Middleton

Rory Parnell

I had pro bono client whose family had emigrated to the US from Africa. Their landlord was difficult, and his agent would yell at them to “return to their own country” when he saw them amid other harassing conduct. The landlord sought to evict them after the expiration of the lease, and the family was in full panic mode. They had no place to go, and turned to Pro Bono. I received the referral, and met with the clients. They were a really kind family who had paid their rent continuously on time, and followed the rules religiously. I was fortunately able to get the case dismissed after a hearing.

After the notice of decision was received, I notified the client and she started crying. She had really believed she had to leave and was so worried and panicked that they had no place to go. She had young children, and was worried she was going to end up on the street. She was so thankful and kind with her words to me, and so thankful to Pro Bono. It really warmed my heart to be able to keep a roof over their head and a nasty landlord at bay. As I say a lot, the law is the great equalizer, and that was borne out at Manchester District Court that day. It was nice to see justice prevail for a great client and family.”

– Rory J. Parnell,
Law Offices of Parnell, Michels & McKay

Andrew Hamilton

My most memorable pro-bono case involved a conflict that showcased a lack of basic human decency towards my clients and their two small children. When my clients finally received a settlement, their feeling of hope that they could start to put these awful circumstances behind them was palpable. It reminded me why I became a lawyer in the first place and is a moment I will not forget.”

– Andrew R. Hamilton,
McLane Middleton

Catherine McKay

I had a pro bono divorce client who was a stay-at-home mom with three young children. She was a stay at home mother and her husband worked two jobs. There was a lot of domestic violence in the home, which ultimately resulted in a restraining order against her husband. She had no access to funds. All assets and all accounts were in husband’s name. The husband retained a very aggressive lawyer to represent him in the restraining order and the divorce. She had pro bono lawyers in the domestic violence and the divorce case. Without pro bono counsel in both cases, her husband and his lawyer would have walked all over her. She never would have been able to represent herself in the restraining order and probably would have lost the restraining order she needed for her safety. She never would have been able to secure any assets for herself and probably would have given up early on in the divorce, just to be away from her husband. She appreciated the pro bono services she received and thanked me every time she talked to me.

– Catherine P. McKay,
Parnell, Michels & McKay

Steven Dutton

One of my most satisfying moments was helping a pro bono client and her disabled daughter through a post-foreclosure eviction situation. At the time I was retained to assist, they were facing immediate eviction and had no other housing options, particularly in light of the limitations presented by the daughter’s disability. I was able to provide them with the necessary time to find alternative housing and also secure payment to them that helped facilitate the move. Being able to help someone to the other side of what seemed to them as a helpless, life-altering situation was extremely rewarding.

- Steven J. Dutton,
McLane Middleton

Lawrence Vogelman

Nowadays, almost all my pro bono work is done through my Veterans Law Project. As many of you know, I co-founded this project shortly after my term as Bar President. New Hampshire has the only statewide project providing legal assistance to veterans, members of service and their families. Most of the cases I refer to a panel of volunteer lawyers that I invite you to join. Many veterans I represent myself. Doing this work is particularly gratifying. Notable are those cases that we handle on behalf of Vietnam-era veterans. For many of them, the first time they ever get to tell their “story” is when they contact our project.

One case of mine particularly stands out. My client was a former Navy Seal who was disabled during his service. He self-medicated using alcohol. Unfortunately, this lead to a number of DUIs. But in the case I represented him on, he had not been drinking; he was involved in a crash due to a panic attack.

When I first met him, he was suicidal and kept talking about just “ending it all.” At the conclusion of the case, when I managed to get his license back and have the case successfully resolved, he was as thankful as any client I have ever had. And, thankfully, two years later, he is still alive, working, and being treated for his psychological issues.

With 20-22 veterans committing suicide in this country every day, it feels good to have, in a small way, contributed to there being one fewer.

– Lawrence A. Vogelman,
Nixon Vogelman Barry Slawsky & Simoneau

David Stamatis

I had a Pro Bono client who came to my firm’s office in throes of a domestic violence matter with her ex-boyfriend. Her son was almost a year old, and she was deeply concerned for his future. While she already had representation on the DV matter, she needed representation to get a parenting petition put together.

When we first met, she could barely make eye contact and gave only one-word responses. She was unemployed, downtrodden and lost. She was seriously concerned with having to face her abuser in court and did not want to “make waves” to upset him. As we worked together over the next several months, she began to understand she could take control of her own life again. She saw the value of “making waves” and standing up for herself.

Fast-forward to a few days before the final hearing, and my client was making eye contact and conversation, and was able to give detailed responses to my questions. She had goals and a vision for her future. She was in school and employed in meaningful work. She was still scared at the final hearing, but she knew it was an important moment in her life. She did an amazing job on the stand.

It was a great moment to see the law empower someone. All she needed was a little help to see her value, to see her worth. Without the help of Pro Bono, and an attorney to get her started, who knows where she’d be today.

– David M. Stamatis,
Law Offices of Parnell, Michels & McKay

Christine Gordon

Through the pro bono program, I recently had the pleasure of representing a woman who struggled with anxiety and was in tough shape emotionally, financially and socially. She required a lot of hand-holding (literally and figuratively). Ultimately, I was able to obtain a fairly reasonable settlement, all things considered.

I received a thank-you note from her which read: “Thank you for assisting me to win this battle. I wouldn’t have been successful without you. It’s people like you who sacrifice their own time and finances who make this world easier to live in and wouldn’t give up even when the odds looked like they were stacked up against me. But we prevailed. You are a very kind, patient and loving person that made a difference in my world.”

The thank-you note is on the door to my office. Made my day to read the note. I really did make a difference.

– Christine Gordon,
Wadleigh, Starr & Peters

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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