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August 06, 2022

Two Texas lawyers, three U.S. law firms lauded for pro bono work

One lawyer has donated hundreds of hours to pro bono services to immigrants, refugees and survivors of persecution in mostly Latin American countries. Another, who was once homeless himself, has built up a nonprofit center that has helped more than 10,000 others facing eviction.

These two Texas lawyers and three national law firms were honored Aug. 5 at the American Bar Association 2022 ABA Annual Meeting with a Pro Bono Publico Award, the top honor given by the association to lawyers and legal entities for demonstrating outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for low-income and disadvantaged persons.

“When I think of pro bono, I think of being selfless, giving and change agents,” ABA President Reginald Turner said at the awards ceremony. “Selfless because it is the right thing to do.”

Since 1984, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service has spotlighted the 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. This year, the work of the honorees was presented in video form at an evening reception rather than a luncheon.

The two Texas attorneys honored with a 2022 Pro Bono Publico Award are:

  • Maddy Dwertman, senior associate at Baker Botts LLP, Austin. Since 2018, Dwertman has provided volunteer pro bono services for American Gateways, a central Texas nonprofit whose mission is to champion the dignity and human rights of immigrants, refugees and survivors of persecution, torture, conflict and human trafficking. In the past 2½ years alone, Dwertman has donated more than 865 pro bono hours, 320 of them during the pandemic year of 2021. In nomination papers, Dwertman was described as “a tireless pro bono advocate … (who) has had immense positive impact on the low-income communities that American Gateways serves.”
  • Mark Melton, partner at Holland & Knight LLP, Dallas. When COVID-19 first began, Melton realized evictions would be a major issue during the pandemic. He recruited more than 250 Dallas lawyers to help tenants navigate the complex legal process of eviction. Under Melton’s leadership, and after more than 2,500 hours of his own pro bono work, the ad hoc, pro bono project has grown into a nonprofit called the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center. The nonprofit employs a team of full-time lawyers and staff and has helped more than 10,000 tenants in Dallas in the past two years at no charge.

All three of the law firm recipients were saluted for their work on behalf of Afghan refugees, in addition to other pro bono efforts. The firms are:

  • Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Akin Gump has a long history of pro bono work, winning a Pro Publico Award in 2012 for its groundbreaking work with Walmart’s legal department to develop the first corporate counsel medical-legal partnership in the U.S. This year’s award honors the firm’s continued pro bono efforts, especially its innovative use of technology during the pandemic. In 2020, the firm built an online, remote clinic to serve DACA applicants, then modified it to help Afghans applying for humanitarian parole in 2021. In December 2021, the firm launched a multiform effort to provide remote legal consultations to migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP. Through its acclaimed Public Service Project, Stroock has been a leader in pro bono legal service for more than two decades. In August 2021, drawing upon its deep expertise in disaster relief, Stroock created the Afghanistan Refugee Assistance Task Force, training and deploying rapid-response teams to provide evacuation, immigration and resettlement supports to dozens of vulnerable Afghans. In 2021, Stroock also extended its Small Business Legal Relief Alliance created at the outset of the pandemic to aid distressed small business owners and nonprofits, and expanded its efforts to combat racial, social and economic injustice.
  • Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. A global law firm headquartered in Palo Alto, California, Wilson Sonsini has long been active in civil rights and immigration pro bono, with dozens of open immigration matters at any given time. In recent years, the firm has substantially increased its pro bono reach, including providing ongoing assistance to Ukrainian and Afghan refugees, representing one of the largest-ever classes of vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries in a successful trial, and obtaining a historic verdict and $12 million judgment against a former Colombian paramilitary warlord on behalf of family members of an assassinated community activist.

Past years recipients can be found here. The ABA Annual Meeting, which began on Aug. 3, ends with the conclusion of the House of Delegates on Aug. 9.