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North Carolina Lawyers Serving the Public Interest.

NC Bar Association presents 2008 pro bono awards

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

  • Organization: LANC

The North Carolina Bar Association, in conjunction with the NCBA Foundation's Public Service Advisory Committee, presented the 2008 Pro Bono Service Awards during the 110th NCBA Annual Meeting in Atlantic Beach.

Christopher Graebe of Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice in Raleigh is the 2008 recipient of the William L. Thorp Award, presented annually since 1984 by the NCBA. The award recognizes the Pro Bono Attorney of the Year and was named in memory of Bill Thorp, a founder of Legal Services of North Carolina, in 2002. Over the past five years, Graebe has devoted much of his volunteer legal services securing justice on behalf of low-income families through the handling of pro bono cases, providing case strategy and co-counseling cases with legal aid attorneys, and recruiting and training private attorneys to handle pro bono matters. The North Carolina Justice Center reports that Graebe has devoted more than 1,000 pro bono hours over the past few years. Although his private practice has focused on business litigation, he has become known as an expert in the intricacies of Section 8 housing law. Graebe's handling of the many, many pro bono cases over the years has had a profound effect on the lives of those he helped. His efforts on behalf of Section 8 tenants in the last three years, including several state court hearings and two federal trials, have resulted in the preservation of stable housing for several clients and the adoption of needed improvements to the local housing authority's administrative policies and procedures. In a message to bar members concerning pro bono service, Graebe said that "we have a unique license to provide legal services, and those services are often the difference between folks having a place to live (or not), becoming a victim of domestic violence (or not), or even losing one's life to the death penalty (or not). By committing our lives and gifts and talents to serving people who can't afford to buy our services, we are making a choice about how we will live our lives." Graebe received a bachelor of arts degree from Wabash College, his master of divinity from Duke Divinity School, and his juris doctor from the University of North Carolina School of Law. He practiced law for 18 years with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice before recently starting his own law firm, Graebe Hanna & Welborn, PLLC in Raleigh.

The Larger Law Firm Pro Bono Award recipient is Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard, LLP. Brooks Pierce was recognized for its firm-wide commitment to pro bono service as well as its deep commitment to NC LEAP (North Carolina Lawyers for Entrepreneurs Assistance Program). Brooks Pierce is commended for creating a firm-wide pro bono culture through its pro bono committee, pro bono policy and pro bono commitment to agencies and organizations needing legal assistance. Most recently, Brooks Pierce has provided significant leadership to propel NC LEAP (North Carolina for Entrepreneurs Assistance Program) of the NCBAF to the program that it is today. "Pro bono service is not just a professional obligation," according to Brooks Pierce policy. "It strengthens our communities, and it enhances the lives and legal practices of those who serve . . . We expect our lawyers to represent our pro bono clients with the same degree of excellence, integrity, skill, and motivation as with firm's higher-paying clients." NC LEAP director Milan Pham estimates that Brooks Pierce attorneys have spent upwards of 1,000 hours over the past two years for NC LEAP - which does not include time spent on NC LEAP assigned clients. Mark Davidson and Patrick Johnson are two examples of NC LEAP leadership within the firm. Davidson chaired the NCBA's Business Law Section when NC LEAP was formed. Patrick Johnson has served as the Chair of NC LEAP's steering committee; coordinating monthly steering committee meetings, overseeing all subcommittee duties including fundraising, hiring of staff and developing organizational infrastructure. In addition to NC LEAP, Brooks Pierce attorneys provide pro bono legal services to other agencies and organizations including Legal Aid of North Carolina, the Women's Resource Center of Greensboro. The firm's commitment to pro bono has continued to grow along with its practice creating a structure that has led to significant business law pro bono contributions throughout the state.

The Chief Justice Award was presented to the NCBA's Young Lawyers Division in recognition of its outstanding service and for the project "Wills for Heroes." Chair Kim Sieredzki and incoming Secretary Kirk Bradley, who was serving as ABA District 9 representative when this endeavor transpired, accepted the award. The Young Lawyers Division, better known as the YLD, has long been known as the "service arm" of the NCBA. This active group of young lawyers regularly engages in helpful pro bono projects. However, this project was different. They are being recognized for their Wills for Heroes project which provided wills for more than 200 first responders - firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2007.
Wills for Heroes was adopted as the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division national public service project. The NCBA's YLD decided to host this event during the ABA YLD fall conference which was held in Charlotte. Through a series of coordinated efforts, the YLD was able to secure many lawyer volunteers, assistance from Lexis/Nexis and assistance from a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Policy Academy staff person who coordinated the appointments. YLD members anticipated executing 60 wills. When they learned that there were more than 120 appointments they were worried whether they would be able handle that number especially since the largest Wills for Heroes event in another state netted 80 wills. Through the hard work and dedication of the many North Carolina attorney volunteers, law students and notaries, they were able to execute more than 200 wills.

The 2008 recipient of the Deborah Greenblatt Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award is Evan Lewis, senior managing attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina's Greenville office. Lewis also provides exemplary volunteer leadership for numerous NCBA endeavors. For nearly 25 years, Evan Lewis has worked actively to ensure that the poor and disenfranchised have access to a fair share of legal rights and remedies, inspiring colleagues along the way. Lewis, who is the senior managing attorney for the Greenville office of Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC), has litigated cases in both state and federal courts. His dedication and advocacy on behalf of his clients has had considerable human impact. He is a dogged, creative attorney who has effectively handled cases in virtually all areas of legal services practice. In a joint letter, Lewis' staff recognizes that he makes time to discuss legal questions, effective case solutions, bench-bar relations or other pressing work matters regardless of his schedule. They also believe that he fosters a collaborative and congenial work environment that helps make them better lawyers, paralegals and support staff. Not only has he assisted legal services staff members in North Carolina, he has reached legal services advocates nationally through the National Housing Law Project. Lewis helped edit the 2004 update of HUD Housing Programs: Tenants' Rights, 3d Edition, which is known throughout the national legal services community as the "green book." For many years, Lewis has championed community economic development as a way to build the economy and provide opportunities in communities that lack resources to be economically sufficient. He has worked very closely with several eastern North Carolina groups to help them provide housing and education and job opportunities in these rural communities. Lewis serves on the NC LEAP (North Carolina Lawyers for Entrepreneurs Assistance Program), a program of the NCBA Foundation. Lewis received his bachelor of arts degree from the College of William and Mary and his juris doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law.

The Immigration Law Association of the University of North Carolina School of Law received the Law Students Pro Bono Project Award for its outstanding work coordinating pro bono projects to raise awareness of immigration-related issues. As the result of a number of workplace and home raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), a group of community leaders, attorneys, religious leaders and law students formed a coalition to respond. The Immigration Law Association (ILA), as a law student group, became involved. They developed educational programming around a number of issues-explaining the rights of undocumented immigrants, asserting rights during a workplace raid and protecting their ability to apply for a visa or citizenship. With the help of five immigration attorneys, twenty students presented 15 sessions between October 2007 and February 2008, reaching hundreds of immigrants in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Goldsboro. These skit-based sessions included skits followed by discussion of the skits and a skit re-do showing the participants how to apply what they have learned. Demand for these presentations began to exceed ILA's capacity, so it began working with students at the North Carolina Central University School of Law and UNC's Latin American Studies Program to respond to this demand.

The Younger Lawyer Pro Bono Service Award, established by the NCBA Young Lawyers Division in 2001 to promote pro bono activities among young or newly practicing attorneys, was presented to Georgiana L. "Georgi" Yonuschot of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, in Winston-Salem. During the past two years, Georgi Yonuschot has provided, on average, 450 hours per year to pro bono service while maintaining her demanding commercial practice at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC. Yonuschot has provided her services to a number of organizations including Guardian ad Litem, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in Salazar. Helping children is one area of interest for Yonuschot. She has spent a significant number of hours defending the best interests of children against the appeals of their abusive or neglectful parents whose parental rights had been terminated at the District Court level. Additionally, she has worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Having spent more than 100 hours to serving her client in a case related to an international child custody claim, a federal judge granted her client's custody petition to return the child to his custody. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Yonuschot also spent several weeks in New Orleans worked with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, ultimately helping low-wealth homeowners secure a range of benefits. These homeowners, many of whom lived in their family homes for multiple generations, needed clear title to their homes in order to qualify for benefits such as FEMA, homeowners insurance and The Road Home. Yonuschot assisted by interviewing and researching claims for her clients in New Orleans and then ultimately completing and filing the legal work ("successions") necessary to give them clear title once she returned to North Carolina. In all, she spent more than 400 hours and completed more than 100 successions. Yonuschot received both her bachelor of science degree in Public Health, Health Policy and Administration and her master of social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her juris doctor from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University.

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