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February 05, 2024 Feature

Honoring Outstanding Public Service

By Maureen Essex
GPSLD 2023 National Awards Winners. From left, Maria Thomas-Jones (on behalf of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas), Lisa Schreibersdorf, and Mary Smith.

GPSLD 2023 National Awards Winners. From left, Maria Thomas-Jones (on behalf of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas), Lisa Schreibersdorf, and Mary Smith.

Kellie Cushing, Photography G, Inc.

The American Bar Association’s Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division (GPSLD) announced the winners of its 2023 national awards this summer. The Dorsey Award, honoring an outstanding public defender or legal aid lawyer, was given to Lisa Schreibersdorf, founder and executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services. The Hodson Award, celebrating an exceptional public sector law office, was presented to Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. The Nelson Award, recognizing outstanding contributions to the ABA, was presented to ABA President Mary Smith.

The Dorsey Award

Lisa Schreibersdorf accepting the Dorsey Award from GPSLD Officer Paula Frederick.

Lisa Schreibersdorf accepting the Dorsey Award from GPSLD Officer Paula Frederick.

Kellie Cushing, Photography G, Inc.

Lisa Schreibersdorf created Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) in 1996 as a criminal defense office serving a few thousand clients. During Ms. Schreibersdorf’s tenure, BDS has become a full-service legal provider with a $70 million budget and a multidisciplinary staff of more than 500 people who represent 22,000 clients a year.

Over the past several years, BDS has diversified and expanded its services to meet the changing needs of its clients. Recognizing that many clients face immigration consequences in addition to or because of their criminal conduct, in 2009 BDS began offering immigration representation to clients, and in 2012, BDS became one of three providers that make up the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the nation’s first assigned counsel program for people who are detained and in deportation proceedings. In 2013, BDS began representing parents facing allegations of child abuse and neglect in family court and parents who were the subject of a child welfare investigation. In 2017, BDS opened a community-based office in a location in which the residents were particularly enmeshed in the criminal and welfare systems. Operating within the community, the staff offers social service referrals and conducts “know your rights” workshops in addition to providing criminal defense services. With the onset of the pandemic, Ms. Schreibersdorf developed the Client Essentials Program through private grants and donations to assist clients with obtaining the technology to participate in virtual court proceedings, along with food and clothing.

Ms. Schreibersdorf also spends time on issues of overarching importance to her client base. She advocates for alternatives to prosecution, bail and sentencing reform, and fair funding for public defenders.

Upon accepting the award, Ms. Schreibersdorf said,

Our clients are often vilified and targeted by so many systems that, over time, we have come to believe that the only way to fulfill the promise of truly representing them is to provide a wide range of other legal services as well as case management and social work services. By working as a team, we have made a huge impact on the lives of close to a million people.

She added,

Those of us who have reached a position of leadership in the legal profession and who have dedicated our lives to genuine public service owe it to society to work towards change. We owe it to ourselves as people who have made that commitment to honestly assess what we see on a daily basis and think about whether the status quo is something we should be defending or something we should be questioning. We must look and genuinely imagine a world in which the systems that we work in are no longer targeting people but are set up to help people, to work with them so that everyone can meet their potential and share their gifts with the rest of us.

The Hodson Award

Maria Thomas-Jones giving remarks after receiving the Hodson Award on behalf of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas.

Maria Thomas-Jones giving remarks after receiving the Hodson Award on behalf of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas.

Kellie Cushing, Photography G, Inc.

The mission of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT) is to ensure equal justice for low-income Texans across 114 counties through the provision of high-quality legal representation and to improve the lives of the clients it serves through the rule of law.

In 31 offices located across North and West Texas in both urban and rural communities, the 175 lawyers and 125 support staff members of LANWT offer a full range of civil legal services in the areas of housing and homeless prevention, public benefits and income maintenance, bankruptcy and consumer affairs, elder and probate law, employment and barrier removal, youth rights, and family law with an emphasis on serving survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

LANWT strives to be accessible to the population it serves. Prospective clients can apply for services via a telephone intake hotline, online, in person at branch offices, and at intake clinics.

To meet the needs of its diverse client base, LANWT expanded the traditional civil legal services it offered to include a Disaster Legal Services Unit that provides mobile legal assistance to survivors of natural disasters; a Home Preservation Project to address eviction defense and rental assistance; the Pro Se Assistance Program in the Dallas, Abilene, and Lubbock courthouses; and the Driver’s License Restoration Project, made possible by a Pro Bono Innovation grant from the Legal Services Corporation, that has assisted nearly 1,000 persons in obtaining a driver’s license or state identification card.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, LANWT entered into a unique partnership with the Tarrant County Dispute Resolution Program that developed a process for diverting evictions filed in court. LANWT was instrumental in helping the Tarrant County Dispute Resolution Program modify its services to provide critical help to low-income tenants so that they could avoid eviction during the height of the pandemic.

Maria Thomas-Jones, LANWT’s chief executive officer, accepted the award on behalf of her office. She said, “Since 1951, LANWT’s staff have been dedicated to providing outstanding free civil legal services to low-income Texans, especially during the recent eviction crisis. LANWT is proud to be among those legal professionals dedicating their skills to a career in public service and in ensuring there is the opportunity for meaningful participation in our legal system by all.”

The Nelson Award

ABA President Mary Smith giving remarks after receiving the Nelson Award.

ABA President Mary Smith giving remarks after receiving the Nelson Award.

Kellie Cushing, Photography G, Inc.

Mary Smith, the first Native American woman elected to the position of ABA President, has held numerous leadership roles within the ABA. She served as secretary of the association from 2018 to 2020, two terms on the ABA Board of Governors, and in elected capacities in the Section of Litigation and Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. She also served as an ABA representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Ms. Smith is an independent board member and former CEO of the Indian Health Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2022, she was appointed as trustee of the Tribal Abatement Fund Trust, a fund created to address the opioid epidemic. She has served in both the federal and state governments, including in the Civil Division at the U.S. Department of Justice and as general counsel at the Illinois Department of Insurance. Early in her career, Ms. Smith served in the White House as associate counsel to the president and associate director of policy planning during the Bill Clinton presidency.

Ms. Smith is the founder and president of the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation, named for her mother and grandmother, respectively, whose mission is to train Native American girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Ms. Smith is also a trusted and valued mentor to Native American attorneys, many of whom can trace their involvement in the ABA to her encouragement to be active in the organization.

Ms. Smith said on receiving the award,

When I look around the room and see so many great government lawyers . . . I am reminded of why I was drawn to public service in the first place: to serve as an advocate for those individuals and issues that lack voices but deserve to be heard. And it is a singular privilege to serve in a role where the overriding charge is to do not what is popular, or partisan, or political, but to do what is right.
There are so many types of government lawyers at the federal, state, or local level or in big cities, from New York to Miami, to rural areas in Illinois to South Dakota. All these government lawyers are part of a big patchwork bound together by the common thread of public service. We are servant leaders. And I want to extend a sincere thank-you to all of you for this service—to your clients, to the profession, and to our country.

Ms. Smith continued,

During my first tour of duty at the Department of Justice, Janet Reno was Attorney General, and she wanted every lawyer there to understand their unique role in our legal system. She had an inscription not far from her office that read, and I am paraphrasing, “The government wins its case when justice is done.” That has been my guiding principle as a government lawyer and throughout my career, and that is why I am so honored by this recognition today. 

Recognize Outstanding Government Lawyers!

It’s not too early to think about submitting a nomination for the 2024 Dorsey, Hodson, and Nelson Awards honoring outstanding government and public sector lawyers. The Dorsey Award honors an outstanding public defender or legal aid lawyer. The Hodson Award recognizes sustained, outstanding performance or extraordinary service by a government or public sector law office. The Nelson Award recognizes exceptional contributions to the American Bar Association by an individual government or public sector lawyer. Nominations are due April 8, 2024.

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Maureen Essex

U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland

Maureen Essex is the CJA supervising attorney for the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland and a long-standing member and former chair of the GPSLD.