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Andrew W. Wood awarded John C. Kenney ProBono Award

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

'A huge heart of gold'
Local lawyer has given his time to Legal Aid for more than 35 years

As a young lawyer, Andrew W. Wood would spend an afternoon a week at the precursor to Central Virginia Legal Aid Society Inc. providing free representation for clients who could not afford to hire an attorney.

Today, more than 35 years later, he still regularly represents Legal Aid clients. "I've always done it," Wood said recently from his law office on Granite Avenue just south of Grove Avenue. "It's like going to church."

Henry W. McLaughlin III, executive director of Legal Aid, said his agency always depends heavily on volunteers. But Wood "stands out," McLaughlin said. "Andy's done so much of it, and he's taken on very difficult tasks, and he always does a wonderful job."

The Richmond Bar Association recognized Wood's volunteer work recently by awarding him its annual John C. Kenny Pro Bono Award. "Pro bono" is the Latin phrase meaning "for the good" that attorneys use to describe work done for free or at a greatly reduced cost.

"He's just got a huge heart of gold, the old-style, small practitioner who just does a lot of stuff quietly and well," lawyer Stephen W. Bricker said.

"Andy also does everything," Bricker said. "That's remarkable in itself. He does wills, he does incorporations, he does criminal, he does civil."

As a general practitioner, Wood believes he provides a valuable service for clients who don't qualify for legal aid help but who can't afford to pay top dollar for such relatively routine legal tasks as wills, real estate closings, and setting up partnerships and small corporations.

"We have to have good, competent legal help for middle-class folks," Wood said. "Richmond is blessed with good lawyers and good general-practice lawyers."

Wood does not consider himself an expert in any of those areas and routinely refers complicated cases to lawyers with specialties.

He could spend the time to educate himself well enough to handle many of those matters, Wood said, but it would not be a good use of his time. The specialists can do a much better job and might even be less expensive because "it costs less in the long run if it's done correctly," Wood said.

An important part of his practice, he said, is balancing two contradictory approaches. The first is simply listening and being responsive to the client when he or she calls.

The second is understanding that "most cases, if they're left alone, they'll solve themselves."

When a legal dispute arises, the parties may be so at odds that they can't talk to each other or be receptive to a suggestion as to how to resolve the matter reasonably, he said. Giving emotions time to cool, while still being engaged with a client, is often the best approach, he said.

Wood grew up on Granite Avenue, three blocks north of the site of his office, the son of a taxi-company dispatcher.

His first job was as newspaper carrier, and he began working as a copy messenger at The Times-Dispatch when he was 17. He continued to work as an editorial assistant and a reporter while attending the University of Richmond and its law school until he graduated in 1967.

He was a law clerk for Judge John D. Butzner Jr. of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before joining the firm of Bremner, Byrne, Baber & Janus as an associate.

There he fell under the tutelage of the late t Judge L. Paul Byrne of Henrico County Circuit Court, whom Wood described as "a great general practice lawyer" with a notoriously tight hold on the firm's purse strings.

Pro-bono work did not seem like a sacrifice at first because "it took me a long time to learn that lawyers are supposed to make money," he said with a grin after the bar association gave him a standing ovation before presenting him with the award.

Wood and W. Scott Street III, a partner at Williams Mullen and a former president of the Virginia State Bar, formed a partnership in 1971 that lasted through much of the decade.

Street has an endless supply of stories about the lean times at the start of the practice. "We had to go try cases together because we only had one case," he recalled.

Since 1981, Wood has practiced with his wife, Cheryl, whose practice has been limited mostly to real estate closings. "What's made the practice so good for us is that it's been a wonderful way to raise children," Wood said. "She's always been at home when the children got out of school."

Street said Wood remains "one of the smartest lawyers I've ever had the chance to practice with. Andy's intelligence is certainly not limited to just the book intelligence. He has a very good feel for people."

"I guess one of the biggest compliments one lawyer can pay to another is to refer him clients in an area that he doesn't handle," Street said. "I have more confidence in referring somebody to Andy than I do just about anybody around because he's going to do a good job."

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