In our broken system, legal help can be so expensive that the innocent and needy are often forced to suffer because they cannot afford the help they need to legally maintain their rights. But there is hope for those who cannot hire an expensive lawyer to win a case in their favor: pro bono lawyers across the country are fighting public interest and social justice cases to defend those who deserve but cannot afford adequate legal assistance. Here are ten heroic lawyers whose activism has changed both lives and laws.
Tony Tolbert, a lawyer who learned his giving mentality from his lawyer father, decided he wanted to give his home up to a needy family for one year — entirely rent-free.
“You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Oprah,” Tolbert said of his act of kindness. And he made Felicia Dukes and her four children, who had been living in a homeless shelter, very happy when he chose them to occupy his space for that year while they worked to get back on their feet.
“Kindness creates kindness,” Tolbert said.
Jose Petrierra is more than just a veteran immigration attorney; he’s also a kind and concerned man who spends one night a week on spanish language television in Washington D.C. answering viewers’ questions about immigration laws. Petrierra has been dedicating his time to this endeavor for the past ten years.
Petrierra also offers advice to those who call into his office with immigration concerns. His recommendations are sound and thorough.
“Get a shoe box, and put every single document that you have that shows your continuous residency in this country in that shoe box,” Petrierra says to questions regarding deportation concerns.
Petrierra focuses on helping immigrants from around the world, but has also taken on high-profile cases such as the Elian Gonzalez case, in which he won the father custody of Elian.
But “It’s always good to be on the side of the poor,” Petrierra says of his typical workload, and says that this outlook is greatly attributed to how much he was effected by the Capitol Hill debate over refugee law and war in Central America.
Todd Belcore was recently named “Young Lawyer of the Year” or 2013 by the Illinois State Bar Association for his outstanding service to the poorer communities in that state.
Belcore assists low-income people with criminal records work through the legal system to find jobs despite obstacles and barriers, such as background checks and jobs unwilling to hire those with criminal histories. Not only does he focus on individuals with needs regarding employment and housing, but he has helped to pass six laws whose goals are to create more opportunities for these people and also to lower the incarceration rates in the area.
Belcore has taught 43 workshops on expungement, Certificates of Good Conduct, and other such helpful and educational topics to over 1,000 men and women in need. He has also filed petitions on behalf of 90 individuals who are “lost” inside the system, fighting against over-incarceration.
When he’s not working, Belcore is still working; he is active in community service and has recently founded the Chicago International Social Change Film Festival.
Ralph Abascal died in the 1990s, but his pro bono attorney work for the poor and needy will not be soon forgotten. Abascal took on over 200 cases to help fight for farmers, welfare recipients, the elderly, disabled, and needy.
Abascal’s work was so significant that it’s the reason DDT is banned today; his lawsuits resulted in not only that but the eventual ban of approximately 85% of pesticides in use in the 70s.
Abascal fought against Reagan’s failed effort to cut federal funding from welfare, won a notion to disallow illegal immigrants from being banned from public colleges, helped draft the 1986 federal immigration reform law, worked hard to advocate women’s right to choose and helped change the way states are required to discard their toxic chemicals.
The list goes on and on. Without Abascal, a number of laws in the states may be different today.
“Ralph was probably the most successful lawyer in California, if not the nation, in using legislation and litigation to affect people in positive ways,” said friend and coworker Brad Seligman.
The Wilmer Hale Law Firm
The controversial Wilmer Hale law firm has handled some touchy and unpopular cases, but nothing stands out like their defense of six Algerian suspects help in Guantanamo Bay since 2004 without any charges.
The Wilmer Hale law firm provided an estimated $17 million in legal help to the terror suspects for free as the six man sat patiently waiting to be served any kind of justice.
“We understood back in 2004 that this was about as important as anything we could take on,” Says Boston-based partner Stephen Oleskey, leader of a 30-lawyer team in defense of the six detainees. “This was clearly a legitimate effort to solicit lawyers to help out with a significant constitutional issue.”
As a consequence, for the the first time in U.S. history, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had “Improperly suspended their constitutionally guaranteed right to challenge their detention.”
However, it wasn’t entirely victorious: Congress soon after passed new laws preventing the detainees from challenging their detention or being released from the prison.
David Smith is a multi-tasker; he’s a law professor, charity fundraiser, Russian orphanage volunteer, and a pro bono attorney. Listed as one of the “Best Lawyers in America,” Smith is representing the plaintiffs in Cobell v. Salazaar, a class action case fighting on behalf of half a million Native American beneficiaries of the Individual Indian trust.
“The Cobell case is important for a variety of reasons,” he says. “First, it has been a landmark case in holding the government accountable for breaches of its trust responsibility toward Native Americans. It has led to numerous other lawsuits filed by tribes and others seeking an accounting of trust funds.
Smith has received multiple awards for his pro bono work, mostly serving as a guardian to abused or neglected children.
Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP
The Atlanta based firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP helps to assist lower income grandparents and relatives of the children they adopt due to neglectful, abusive, or generally absent parents. By supporting these families, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP are helping keep children in loving family homes and out of the foster care system. With their help, grandparents can officially adopt their rightful grandchildren in cases where they might otherwise not be able to afford the legal help to win them the right to do so.
Another deceased attorney whose work still effects people to this day, David Bryson was a housing rights advocate for the poor for years. Described as a “Central figure in the advocacy for public housing residents and residents of all subsidized housing developments,” and as having a “crucial role.”
Temporary director and deputy director for the National Housing Law Project of Oakland, California, Bryson spent over twenty years engaged in such pro bono work and advocacy.
Bryson died in 2000 of lung cancer when he was 58, but passed his methods and advice for supporting the poor on to multiple lawyers and advocates first. He received multiple awards, including the State Bar’s highest honor the Loren Miller Legal Services Award, for his charity, and was involved in significant cases such as winning from the Supreme Court the right for public housing residents to sue over alleged violations of federal housing laws.
When Gary Blasi decided, on somewhat of a whim, to join California’s legal apprenticeship program under an attorney instead of traditional law school in 1971, he never dreamed that he would eventually be awarded the highest award the State Bar ever doles out.
Blasi first became an advocate for social justice when he volunteered to assist in the defense of Vietnam vet and anti-war activist Ronald Kovic after Kovic was arrested protesting Nixon’s re-election in LA. He then noticed the high rate of eviction in lower income neighborhoods in Echo Park. He took action then, too, creating a Tenant Action Center where free legal services could be obtained by tenants two nights a week.
For the next 40 years, Blasi would continue to fight for the needy, poor and/or pigeonholed in the fight against injustice.
Blasi’s cases have helped to change the laws regarding how and when people in lower-income areas can be evicted, preventing unlawful tactics from being used and going on to start the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles’ Defense Center in 1983.
He has since become a professor of law and founded the UCLA School of Law’s Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy, which trained hundreds of lawyers who would go on to do the same type of important and remarkable work that he did himself.
A third winner of the Loren Miller award in the state of California, Sid Wolinksy pretty much started off at the other end of the spectrum. Once an entertainment lawyer in Beverly Hills, Wolinsky said there was “very little opportunity to do what we now call public interest law” when he worked at what he calls his “second choice.”
For over 43 years, Wolinsky has participated in disability rights advocacy and created multiple programs to assist the poor with legal issues and rights. He has created low-income housing in San Francisco, participated in the win for equal funding in California education via Serrano v. Priest, and forced Los Angeles to consider the disabled when planning for disasters.
Wolinsky’s work for the disabled lives on in New York City and includes fighting for wheelchair accessibility in NYC cabs and subway stops, and he continues to fight for disabled veterans who suffer from PTSD and may not be getting the medical care they need.
On retiring, Wolinksy says “Why would I want to do that?”