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2021 Pro Bono Publico Award Recipients

The American Bar Association honored four individuals and a law firm for demonstrating outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for the poor and disadvantaged at a virtual program later this summer.

The Pro Bono Publico Awards represent the top honors given by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, which over the years has spotlighted pro bono efforts of individual lawyers and small and large law firms, government attorney offices, corporate law departments and other institutions in the legal profession. The Awards were presented August 4, 2021  on the opening day of the 2021 ABA Annual Meeting.

Watch the award presentation in its entirety.

Cynthia Chandler – Director, Bay Area Legal Incubator, Oakland, California

Since 2015, Chandler has grown the incubator, which coaches diverse attorneys to build successful, affordable law practices serving low and middle-income clients throughout California. Designed to promote diversity in the legal profession while increasing access to justice, the incubator is a project of the Alameda County Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda. Previously, she helped build a movement to challenge state violence and imprisonment, co-founding several groups influencing the Black Lives Matter network. Her decades long work empowering women in prison to challenge forced sterilization is featured in the Peabody-nominated documentary film "Belly of the Beast."

Personal statement:

Legal representation alone cannot afford access to justice if the law is not just. I became an attorney to be an accomplice to grassroots movements seeking systemic change.

When I went to kindergarten, my mom went back to school to become the first woman to earn a PhD in physics from the University of Illinois (there had been one woman graduate student prior; she killed herself). Mom regularly went to the lab late after putting my sister and me to bed. One night, a group of masked men forced their way into the lab and threatened to kill her. As she begged for her life, they unmasked, revealing they were her fellow students playing a joke. At that time there was no remedy for such harassment. I watched my mom persevere without relief. I also learned the import of building power with communities in struggle, not over them. To this day, my mom insists I never describe her as a victim. I honor her as a warrior.

When I was nine, my school class went on a scared-straight trip to a juvenile facility so brutal it closed through lawsuits years later. I lived in a small integrated enclave within a sundown town. I did not yet have the language to critique the caging of Black children, whom we were encouraged to view like animals in a zoo, or the broader structural racism that shaped how we lived, but I knew there was something deeply wrong with Justice if that place was considered just. The adults that day accidentally birthed an abolitionist.

I have dedicated my career to achieving gender and racial justice while challenging state violence. As a social entrepreneur, activist, academic, and attorney, I seek to be a change-maker, aiding social justice movements in building true justice. In collaboration with HIV-positive activists in prison, I founded the first organization advocating for HIV-positive women in prison. I then co-founded Critical Resistance and Justice Now, early prison industrial complex abolitionist organizations influencing the Black Lives Matter network. I have coached dozens more social venture founders. I strive to be equally innovative with my legal practice.

When law does not allow relief my clients seek, I change it. I used loopholes to create the compassionate release process allowing terminally ill people release from prison. My first cases informed compassionate release law in California that was replicated nationally. With Justice Now, I spent much of the last 20 years partnering with activists in prison to expose contemporary coercive sterilization of women in California’s prisons, and led legislative efforts to stop it. I am honored that this campaign is documented in Erika Cohn’s New York Times critics pick documentary Belly of the Beast.

In all my work, I strive to support disenfranchised people in realizing their own solutions for justice. I continue this work as Director of BALI | Bay Area Legal Incubator, an Oakland-based access to justice project of the Alameda County Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda, in collaboration with five California law schools. BALI accelerates success of affordable law practices launched by diverse attorneys to serve disenfranchised communities.

I view pro bono service as key to attorneys’ success, including mine. Under my tutelage, the BALI community has performed over 16,000 hours of pro bono service in the last 5 years. Our service benefits our law practice development as much as the community. I maintain a pro bono legal and legislative practice outside BALI, most recently consulting on compassionate release and medical parole during the pandemic and contributing to a coalition advancing reparations for California’s survivors of eugenic sterilization abuse historically and more contemporarily in the state’s prisons. A proposal to fund reparations in California is expected to pass this year. If approved, the statutory language I drafted will make California the first state to compensate imprisoned survivors of sterilization abuse.

What an honor it is for my pro bono and access to justice efforts to be acknowledged by the America Bar Association – thank you! Thank you to my colleagues at the Alameda County Bar Association (ACBA) for making my work possible, and to the BALI attorneys for inspiring me daily. I am humbled to be nominated by ACBA President Vincent Tong: when we met, he was my intern; now I look up to him as a leader. And thank you to my husband and children who support my work as our shared calling.

I would like to dedicate this award to my comrade Theresa Martinez, an exalted human rights advocate who died shortly after submitting my recommendation. Paramedics denied her care, commenting on her prison tattoos and ignoring her husband’s pleas. Her death heightens anew my awareness of our profession’s import, and of the work to be done to create a just world. May we continue the fight in her honor.

TerryAnn Howell – Nelson Mullins, Miami

Upon her departure from public service work in 2019 to “big law,” Howell went right back to assisting low-income individuals in need when she began volunteering in the Tenants’ Equal Justice Clinic (TEJC), a project of Legal Services of Greater Miami, and urged other Nelson Mullins attorneys to get involved with the project. Howell also facilitated a Nelson Mullins and Legal Services collaboration to run a statewide COVID-19 Small Business and Nonprofit Clinic through Lawyers for Good Government, growing the collaboration into a three-state Nelson Mullins initiative with 22 firm attorneys volunteering in Florida alone. The effort has been bolstered by the participation of attorneys in other firms.

Personal Statement:

I choose to do pro bono because of who I am and where I am from. I choose to do pro bono because I was the clients I now serve and could have easily continued to be. I choose to do pro bono because others chose to help me and my family when we were in need.

As a first generation undergraduate and attorney hailing from the beautiful island of Jamaica, I wanted nothing more than to help individuals who were like me and my family and who needed me most- the same way others helped me.

As a part of time law student, not only was I working during the day and taking classes at night, I also interned at the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office during my entire law school career. That internship did exactly what I expected it to do- reminded me on a daily basis of where I am from and where I wanted to be. That is, by the side of those who could not afford my services on their own but who needed someone who understood them, that would fight for them and their family as if they were her own.

Why? Because I know firsthand that underrepresented and indigent individuals are often victims of their circumstances. Underrepresented and indigent individuals are often victims of those who are in control of those circumstances. Underrepresented and indigent individuals are often victims because they don’t have the resources to fight back against those who control their circumstances.  And so, I chose to fight for and with them. I continued this fight as Staff Attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami (LSGMI) in its Health and Income Maintenance Unit (HIM) where I represented individuals in a myriad of areas that affected their income. From unemployment and social security benefits to naturalization applications and sealing and expunging criminal records of young adults who had a great future ahead of them. My time at LSGMI is the reason I am before you today. I may have the heart to do pro bono, but they provided me with the opportunities to do so.

Because of LSGMI, I am showing people that you can be in big law and have a big heart. I am on the Young Professionals Board of Riverside House- a reentry program in Miami-Dade, because of the re-entry work I did with clients at LSGMI. I take on multiple pro-bono eviction cases now because I volunteered at the Tenants’ Rights Clinic at LSGMI. I’ve assisted with the Estate Planning Clinic at my firm, because I also volunteered at that same clinic and assisted clients with the same while at LSGMI. I am also on the board of directors of LSGMI as the ACLU-Greater Miami Chapter Representative. All of which share a common theme-representing and fighting for those without a voice.  

I could not end without highlighting the organization that has afforded me the tools I need to speak up for those who can’t be heard by those at the top and those who are muted, my firm, Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough- who also received this award in 1992. Unlike many major law firms, Nelson Mullins pushes, supports and recognizes pro bono and attorneys, who like me, are driven by this type of public service. Being in an environment that fosters your passion and allows you to be yourself, means everything.

It also means everything to be recognized by the ABA. It means everything for a prestigious organization like the ABA to recognize the importance of pro bono because it means everything to our clients that this type of service is continued. So, thank you!

Thank you to the ABA. Thank you to my firm, Nelson Mullins and our pro bono coordinator, Norah Rogers. A big thank you to Legal Services of Greater Miami, and its pro bono coordinator, Jayme Cassidy. Thank you Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office for helping me solidify my place and passion. But most importantly, thank you to my clients who’ve trusted me and continue to trust me with their freedom and their livelihood. You keep me going every single day.  

Neal Manne – Susman Godfrey LLP, Houston

A managing partner of Susman Godfrey, Manne has shown a 40-year commitment to high-impact pro bono work. He has been honored repeatedly for his pro bono leadership, including by the American College of Trial Lawyers, of which he is a fellow. In 2017, Manne’s pro bono work led the publication Texas Lawyer to name him Attorney of the Year. Earlier in his practice, the National Women’s Political Caucus named him a national “Good Guy of the Year” for his successful representation of Planned Parenthood. More recently, Manne won historic reform of Houston’s money bail system and represented two death row exonerees.

Personal Statement:

I am honored to receive the ABA Pro Bono Publico Award.  Congratulations to my fellow award recipients. After law school I clerked for the late William A. Norris, a judge on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Before joining the court, Bill was deeply involved in politics, civil rights, and civic causes in California, and many said that did not end when he donned his judicial robe.  He approached the law with an astonishing level of enthusiasm, and he imparted that enthusiasm to me. 

When I joined the DC’s Wilmer Cutler & Pickering as an associate, it already had a long and rich history of pro bono involvement and public service.  I worked on pro bono cases from the moment I walked in their door, and it became part of my understanding of what it meant to be in private practice.  After a detour to Capitol Hill for a few years as a lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, I returned to Texas and resumed private practice, this time at fledgling trial boutique Susman Godfrey.  Steve Susman and Lee Godfrey already were legendary trial lawyers, but they and their firm did not have a deep engagement in pro bono work when I arrived.   I quickly realized that if I was going to be involved in pro bono cases I would have to create opportunities on my own.   

So, I did.  I have handled dozens of pro bono cases since then, many with significant social impact, and Susman Godfrey’s attitude toward pro bono work has evolved from one of polite indifference to one of very deep commitment and support.  Our lawyers are extremely involved in a wide range of pro bono litigation all over the country.  Early on, Steve Susman and Lee Godfrey thought I was crazy to spend thousands of hours on a pro bono case for Planned Parenthood. But later Steve and Lee led our firm’s efforts in high-impact pro bono cases involving environmental issues and legislative redistricting.

When I joined the firm my wife Nancy extracted from me a solemn promise that I would practice there for two full years before quitting to do something more fun.   I agreed, never expecting that being a Susman Godfrey partner would turn out to be so much fun that I would never want to leave.  In part that’s because I have the freedom to handle essentially any pro bono case I wish, and not because I am a managing partner and a big rainmaker.  All our lawyers can work on pro bono cases and the firm funds the costs of many of the cases.  We make clear to our lawyers that pro bono cases are not something on which they should make a lesser effort in their spare time.  Our lawyers’ work on pro bono cases is reviewed and evaluated no differently than work they do for our firm’s largest paying clients.

And when we call it pro bono, it really is. When I helped finalize a consent decree in a major bail reform case two years ago, Susman Godfrey waived a multi-million dollar attorneys’ fee award to which we were entitled and asked that the money instead be used to help fund the settlement’s programmatic relief. 

As delighted as I am to receive this award, it’s the impact of the pro bono cases themselves that is most meaningful to me.  I have loved being able to win cases for two different death row exonerees, a refugee resettlement organization, women’s health clinics, a charitable trust, Muslim jail inmates, a public access television station, a charitable trust, a religious organization, thousands of indigent people stuck in jail because of an unconstitutional money bail system, and many other pro bono clients.  I even got to work with my mentor Judge Norris on a pro bono case after he retired from the bench and we collaborated in representing Planned Parenthood in a case in the Ninth Circuit. 

Lawyers who engage in pro bono representation genuinely enrich their professional careers.  I look forward to continuing to handle impactful pro bono cases for many years.  I am grateful to be at a firm that supports and encourages pro bono work.  And I am wowed by the work for which my fellow award recipients Cynthia Chandler, Terry Ann Howell, and Rebecca Rapp are being honored by the ABA.

Rebecca Rapp – Ascendium Education Group, Madison, Wisconsin

General counsel/chief privacy officer of Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit committed to improving access and success to education and meaningful employment for vulnerable cohorts, Rapp has had a career of inspiring others to provide pro bono service. She is known for using technology and innovation to increase the reach of pro bono and is involved with a project to provide legal help to technical colleges around Wisconsin, including in rural areas that have been coined “legal deserts” due to their lack of attorneys. Rapp has testified before the Wisconsin Supreme Court to remove limitations on pro bono services. She directly assists clients at legal clinics and serves on committees or boards of several access-to-justice organizations.

Personal Statement:

I am incredibly honored to get this award.  I cannot imagine a scenario I would not be.  But I am especially honored knowing how full of deserving attorneys the access to justice community is. 

My statement is really a thank-you note.  It’s to my employer, Ascendium Education Group.  Ascendium is a nonprofit committed to improving access and success towards education and meaningful employment for our nation’s most vulnerable cohorts.  It has been extraordinarily supportive of access to justice efforts.  I wouldn’t be getting this award without that support.

Grandpa’s Inspiration

I cannot remember when I first realized that I had been given tremendous opportunities and have an obligation to give back.  But I suspect my grandpa had something to do with it.

Grandpa was born to a poor young mother and a mostly absent father.  He sometimes reflected on going to bed hungry as a child.  But he had a supportive family, amazing mentors, and lots of grit.  He ended up becoming a doctor.  He started at Cook County Hospital in Chicago before moving to a West Virginia coal mining town and then settling in his (and my) hometown—Quincy, Illinois. 

Grandpa loved being a doctor.  He often commented that he “never worked a day in his life” since going to medical school and that every day was a “privilege and pleasure.”  It showed.  The reverence with which Grandpa talked about his patients and the compassion, respect, and dedication he showed them was truly beautiful and inspirational.

Children’s Law Center Experience

Despite Grandpa’s plans for me, I didn’t become a doctor.   But I did get to experience the “legal equivalent” early in my career at The Children’s Law Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit committed to providing top-notch representation to children in the abuse and neglect system.  Its attorneys were not only brilliant.  They treated their clients with the same reverence and respect Grandpa did patients.  It was there that I got my first real taste of why Grandpa liked helping people as a doctor so much.

Ascendium’s Wholistic Support

I eventually left The Children’s Law Center to move to Madison.  I did not have (or make) much time for access to justice work for nearly a decade.  That changed at Ascendium.    

We started developing a pro bono program soon after I started.  The efforts were met with immediate support and recognition that access to justice and education initiatives share the common goal of helping people remove barriers to the American Dream and safe, secure, and stable lives.

Ascendium’s Legal Team began holding a monthly clinic at a neighborhood center.   We later coordinated with a variety of stakeholders to start legal clinics at technical colleges.  We launched two clinics in 2019 and are now expanding throughout Wisconsin—including to rural areas coined “legal desserts” because of their complete lack of attorneys.  We are also collaborating with the Legal Services Corporation (“LSC”) on a Rural Justice Task Force set to launch this fall.

And Ascendium’s pro bono program extends beyond its Legal Team.  Ascendium has provided financial support, including grants, to legal-aid organizations.  Ascendium has also provided invaluable shared-services resources—including marketing, finance, and technology support—for the clinic projects as well as a variety of other access to justice initiatives.  

Multiplier Effect

What is particularly meaningful about Ascendium’s support is how it feeds into the larger access to justice community.    Wisconsin is fortunate to have tremendous legal-aid organizations—including its two LSC grantees, law school clinics, and a Schmidt Future awardee LIFT Wisconsin developing an innovative online “legal tune-up” tool.  There’s also the amazing national community—which I have gotten some glimpse of serving on various LSC committees and taskforces.  The ability to bring Ascendium’s support to bear—contributing to a vibrant community of cross-pollination, collaboration, and compounding of initiatives and ideas—is a powerful thing.

Ascendium Model

The pandemic has only served to widen the tremendous justice gap that already existed.  We—not just as a legal community but as a community-at-large—simply cannot afford to stand back and watch the justice gap grow until it upends the entire bedrock of our justice system. 

While there’s certainly a significant role for lawyers, we cannot lawyer our way out of the justice gap any more than chefs can cook their way out of famine or contractors can build their way out of homelessness.  We need the support of companies like Ascendium, not just through their Legal Teams but through their full panoply of resources, if we are to solve what at its heart is a service-delivery issue.

Privilege and Pleasure

I am so incredibly, incredibly grateful to be at a company like Ascendium that gets this.  Taking a line from Grandpa and making it my own:  engaging in the access to justice efforts Ascendium supports is truly a privilege and a pleasure.  Thank you.

Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP – California, Washington, D.C., New York City

The firm moved quickly after the death of George Floyd to launch the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) project with Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Program. The ABLE Project grew out of an initiative to teach officers how to become active bystanders and intervene to prevent misconduct in the New Orleans Police Department. Its aim is to create a culture of active bystandership, in which officers effectively intervene to prevent officer misconduct, avoid mistakes and promote wellness. The firm successfully litigated cases across California to obtain disclosure of records of police misconduct; executed a plan to manufacture and distribute face shields to frontline workers in Los Angeles; and litigated for voting rights for people with disabilities in two states.

Sheppard Mullin Statement:

Sheppard Mullin is honored to receive the 2021 ABA Pro Bono Publico Award. The award reflects the individual and collective efforts of our attorneys who embrace their responsibility to do pro bono work, using their skills to pursue justice and create a better society. Such was the case in 2020, when so many Sheppard Mullin attorneys reacted to the racial justice movement by asking “what can we do?” Sheppard Mullin’s attorneys rose to the occasion in this unprecedented year by creating nationally recognized programs to promote safe policing, pursuing litigation to disclose police misconduct, helping those devastated by COVID-19, and continuing to help achieve justice and equality for people with disabilities.

Almost immediately following the killing of George Floyd, the firm, led by partner Jonathan Aronie, joined with Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Program (IPP) to launch the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) project, an initiative to teach police officers how to become active bystanders and intervene to prevent misconduct, avoid mistakes, and promote wellness. The ABLE project is now a signature initiative within the IPP. Hundreds of police officers across the country have been trained in ABLE methods, which they will now teach to hundreds of thousands of police officers who will learn how to provide safer policing to more than 48 million members of the public. ABLE also serves as a national hub for active bystandership case law, bystander statutes, bystander policies, and other resources and best practices.

Sheppard Mullin special counsel Tenaya Rodewald and a team of Sheppard Mullin attorneys continued to secure impressive wins in California state courts in cases involving the public’s right to access records of police misconduct and significant uses of force, achieving multiple victories that bring to light critical information regarding police misconduct. We also partnered with the First Amendment Coalition to publish a Police Transparency Guide, which provides easy-to-follow steps for accessing law enforcement misconduct and use-of-force records; a comprehensive overview of key statutes and developments in case law; and sample letters for requesting police records.

In the early days of the pandemic, more than a dozen Sheppard Mullin attorneys on both coasts jumped into action to help the Rotary Club of Los Angeles and several donors provide face shields to frontline healthcare workers. Numerous areas of legal expertise were needed in order to repurpose 3-D printers to manufacture, assemble, and distribute 30,000 face shields to healthcare service providers and emergency first responders. Many attorneys also joined efforts across the country to assist small businesses devastated by COVID-19. As a team member remarked, “the willingness of our attorneys to help, and to help right away, is extraordinary.”

We are also proud of the work that our attorneys continue to do in the pursuit of justice for people with disabilities. In Virginia, as a result of our lawsuit on behalf of visually-impaired voters seeking an accessible absentee ballot option, the option was made available in time for the November election. In West Virginia, our advocacy with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Disability Rights of West Virginia on behalf of the American Council of the Blind resulted in the West Virginia legislature passing SB 94 to expand absentee voting options for residents with disabilities. Finally, in New York City, Sheppard Mullin continued to litigate three related cases seeking to make the New York City subway system accessible to people with disabilities as co-counsel with Disability Rights Advocates, a leading nonprofit disability rights legal organization, obtaining a significant appellate decision in a case of first impression under the New York City Human Rights Law.

Sheppard Mullin recognizes that it is both a privilege and professional obligation to be able to use our legal skills to volunteer to represent those in need and to try to close the justice gap. Thank you to the ABA and the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service for promoting one of the noblest aspects of our profession