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Oklahoma Lawyers Making Equal Justice for all a Reality


Honoree's Pro Bono Case Load Earns Recognition by Peers

Monday, December 17, 2007

  • Ralph Schaefer
  • Tulsa Daily Commerce & Legal News

Zacharia treated as part of Legal Aid Services family--

Mike Zacharias wondered why he alone was singled out- to receive the top award as a pro bono attorney from Legai Aid Services of Oklahoma, Inc. After all, he said, "there are many attorneys who have done outstanding worK during-the year deserving of theaward." Zacharias was selected because the offices at the Legal Aid of Oklahoma office in Tulsa, handling cases and giving legal advice to other staff attorneys. He has closed 15 cases and currently is handling another seven - a number unheard offor a volunteer lawyer.

In addition, he was a presenter at the Legal Aid ServIces divorce seminar in May and at the request of the Oklahoma Bar Association, wrote an artide for the Bar Journal pointing out why it was important to volunteer as a legal aid attorney.

The award was presented on Nov. 8th in Oklahoma City during the annual Oklahoma Bar Association meeting. Zacharias feels like he has been treated "as one of the family" by the Legal Aid law staff and personnel in the Tulsa office Where he donates time almost daily to people Who otherwIse would not have representatIOn or access to the legal system through the courts.

Tulsa's Legal Aid staff has good lawyers and handles a huge caseioad, he said. "My work has been involved primarily in' helping get people -mostly women and. children. - get out of abusive situatIons."

These scenarios were something the honoree was very familiar with. He practiced family law before, serving as a special district judge for five years where he dealt with the same Issues.

Spending half days at Legal Aid sInce he ieft the bench, Zacharias handled between 12 and 15 cases during the first 10 months of 2007. Several more are pending and he has files on his desk. When the hours are tallied, he has more than 500 hours of pro bono time involved - something he calls "good experience."

Volunteer work meant helping people getting out of abusive relationships, helping them get started on another path and hopefully towards a better life. Support went beyond the Legal Services Tulsa office.

Zacharias also has the support of Todd Alexander, a family lawyer involved in mediation and two staff
members, Sarah Shusetter and Mary Goodwill.

Legal Service attorneys, and many in the profession are compassionate, talented and generous with their time and services, Zacharias continued. "I had done pro bono work III tile past and this seemed a natural step when I left the bench. Volunteering at this time iS helping transition back into a family law practice."

Serving as a voiunteer has good points, he added, noting that by attending iegai seminars on related subjects qualifies one for Continuing Legal Education credit pius materials without having to pay for it. It is one way the organizatIon gives back to the profession.

As aJudge, ZacharIas had the opportunity to see both sides of family law from the bench. It completed
the circle because he also had served as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney. Because of that experience, he has a deep appreciation of all roles.

Zacharias plans to stay active with Legal Services, dealing with assigned cases including landlord-tenant cases, helping the homeless and with people living in substandard housing and bankruptcies.

There also is some work advising people wanting to represent themselves in courst - pro se - who don't understand procedures,he said. These people can get themselves into trouble in the system without intending to do so. The result could be a judgment that doesn't completely meet their needs and cause additional legal problems.

A significant number of calls also are being received from Hispanic and Asian immigrants wondering about their status and whether, or not their children born in this country actually are citizens, Zacharias continued. These people need legal help, whether through immigration or through the courts. There is a fear that family members will be taken away and it is difficult to find them.

Working with these people makes a person aware that personal trouble can be insIgnificant, he said. That is not to downplay individual situatIons. But people seeking help through Legal Services have layers upon layers of troubles that most people cannot imagine.

People seeking heip through Legal SerVices want to live as normal a life as possible. They want to get their kids in and keep, them in school. Often they need help that Legal Services cannot provide. But the office does have a network of other agencies, ethnic groups and churches where a particular assistance is available.

It is a good feeling to try to help other people, Zacharias continued. "It energizes me and other attorneys willing to donate their time and wherewithal to provide assistance." Sometimes that assistance from others IS through monetary contributions. The Amencan Bar Association encourages attorneys to get involved to help people. "That is what lawyers do - help people," he said.

"I was a little surpised -and embarrassed - to get the award," Zacharias added. "There are a good bunch of folks at Legal Aid. Todd, who also takes pro bono cases, has been vitally important in his support."

Zacharias plans to continue his work as a volunteer and in private practice as long as possible.

Zacharias is a UniversIty of Tulsa College of Law graduate, class of 1970. He can be contacted at Legal Aid of Oklahoma at 918-584-3338.


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