OCBA UPDATE: Who cares about awards?

By Peter M. Alter

Well, on June 2, 2011, the Oakland County Bar Association held its Annual Meeting. As you know, as part of the Annual Meeting, the OCBA has an Awards Ceremony, presenting awards to a handful of committed attorneys, jurists and others who have distinguished themselves by providing service to the bar and the community during the past year and often much beyond that.

But, really, who cares about awards? I am confident in saying that among those who care the least about awards are the recipients of the awards, even though each is justifiably pleased and honored to receive his or her award. Each recipient has performed yeoman service, without any consideration of or attention to the possibility of receiving an award. They are dedicated lawyers; they are dedicated community leaders; they are dedicated judges. All of them are dedicated to providing service to our greater community. So, of course, neither Michael Schloff, an OCBA past president, nor Anne Cole-Pierce, an OCBA board member, ever expected or cared to receive an award for spearheading this year's highly successful effort that raised more than $25,000 for the OCBA's Operation Afghan-Iraq PAC collection. What I suspect is most gratifying to them and all of those who helped raise this money is the kind of "thank you" note we received from CSM James Taylor, stationed at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. After his unit received many hundreds of pounds of candies, snacks and other goodies, gear and lots of love from the OCBA, he sent a heartfelt e-mail:

"Hello fellow Americans, I am the Battalion Command Sergeant Major for a unit based in Detroit currently deployed to Kandahar ... I want to personally thank every one of you ... for the continued support for my troops taking the fight to the enemy. We are serving proudly and earning your respect daily, we are very grateful for the care packages that all of you sent ..."

Really, who needs an award? Clearly, our modest efforts produced huge benefits for our soldiers. Could we do anything less? And, of course, the reward to Mike, Anne and the other contributors to this wonderful cause was "priceless."

Similarly, Judges Joan E. Young and Colleen A. O'Brien, the recipients of this year's OCBA's Distinguished Public Servant awards, perform their duties and responsibilities in a selfless manner, undertaking exceptional voluntary service and decades of dedication to the OCBA as well as the legal community and the general public. Judge Young has a well-known passion for helping children and families, and simply never says "no" when asked to assist the OCBA or myriad other charitable endeavors. She also has served on the board of directors of HAVEN, various State Bar and Michigan Supreme Court task forces, and has received numerous awards, including the Champion for Justice Award.

Judge O'Brien, a past presiding judge of the Circuit Court Civil/Criminal Division, has worked tirelessly for the OCBA, as well as the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, numerous bench and bar committees, and also finds time to serve as an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School.

No, they don't care about the awards either. They care about public service, about helping and improving our community, and helping the citizens of our community. Indeed, this is what the OCBA is all about.

Increasingly, it is clear, particularly in the current economic and social environment, that what makes the OCBA a great bar association is not the awards that we give out; it is not our outstanding bench/bar conferences; it is not our great social events such as the always-sold-out annual Holiday Gala; and it isn't even our very successful committees or our New Lawyers Council. Rather, without any question, what makes the OCBA great is the consistent and remarkable service of the OCBA and its members to our community, and our myriad pro bono services to the public. Unmistakably, such service is an essential part of our mission and, during the coming year, my goal is to emphasize and expand the services that we provide and to be a cheerleader for even greater involvement by our members in our myriad pro bono and other service opportunities. I very much hope that every member of the OCBA will consider providing some service to our community through the OCBA. Truly, no activity is more rewarding - and the activity itself is its own "award."

So, while I already mentioned several OCBA members who recently received awards at our Annual Meeting, there are a host of other dedicated, talented and hardworking OCBA members, our "unsung heroes," who perform above and beyond the call of duty, providing incredibly vital services to those in need and to those who cannot afford the legal fees that most of us charge for the services we provide. And, of course, they do so without seeking any recognition or any awards.

Many of these stories are really inspiring - and I hope they will inspire many of us to provide pro bono services through the OCBA. Therefore, from time to time, part of my monthly column will be devoted to identifying one or two OCBA members who have provided exemplary pro bono service to our community - whether it is through our work with Lakeshore Legal Aid, the People's Law College, FLAP (the Family Law Assistance Project), U of D's Mobile Law Office, community legal aid mini-clinics, one of our terrific committees, or our Pro Bono Mentor Match program, among others.

One of a number of clear standout performers - one of our "unsung heroes" - is the Mellin Robinson law firm and its attorneys, Irika Mellin and Kristen Robinson, who are very active volunteers with FLAP. Not only do they volunteer - every Wednesday - at the FLAP walk-in intake clinics at the Oakland County Law Library, but last year they provided advice and pro se assistance to 65 FLAP clients - and they have assisted another 26 clients in 2011. That's pretty incredible. This law firm also has assisted clients who are low-income and victims of domestic violence, but who don't qualify for FLAP's pro bono representation. Attorneys may volunteer for FLAP's Low-Fee and Deferred Fee panels. Attorneys on the Low-Fee Panel assist litigants who are just over the FLAP income maximum of 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Attorneys on this panel, like Irika and Kristen, agree to represent clients for no retainer or a substantially reduced retainer and charge hourly rates much below their standard rates. Attorneys on the Deferred Fee Panel agree to take FLAP clients who have no income, or whose spouse or partner makes more than $80,000 per year, with the opportunity to file a motion for attorney fees to receive payments from the high-wage-earning spouse or partner.

When asked what motivates her to perform such regular, consistent and excellent legal services to these clients, Irika Mellin explained, "It's the way my parents raised me. I consider myself very fortunate and always want to give back to the community to help those who are less fortunate. Everyone deserves good access to our legal system, to understand the process and how things work. I find it so gratifying, especially when I'm able to help children." The attorneys at the Robinson Mellin law firm do not care about awards; they care about providing legal service to those who can't afford to pay a lawyer.

Another "unsung hero" is Craig Lavoie, an attorney admitted to the bar in fall 2010. He's had a fantastic start to his legal career. Through the OCBA's Pro Bono Mentor Match program, Craig recently represented a Legal Aid and Defender client, a single mother of four children, in an eviction action. The client was actually the sole occupant of a building after the landlord had evicted everyone else. The conditions in the building were extremely poor and people were selling drugs in the building. However, Craig's client had a rent subsidy and, for obvious reasons, did not want to lose it. The landlord moved the client to a unit in another building and she continued to pay her portion of the rent as instructed by the Housing Authority. Apparently, the Housing Authority soon stopped paying the subsidized rent and the landlord decided to sue Craig's client for $3,000 in back rent - or else to evict her. The Housing Authority had decided that her rent subsidy was no longer appropriate.

With Mr. Lavoie's assistance - and guided by his mentors, Jennifer Grieco and Kenneth Neuman - a consent judgment was negotiated, providing that the client did not owe the $3,000 and allowing her sufficient time to move to a more suitable apartment. Thereafter, Mr. Lavoie participated in an administrative hearing regarding the termination of her rent subsidy. The result was terrific - and the Housing Authority agreed to restore the client's rent subsidy in a different apartment.

Here's what Craig had to say about the case: "My pro bono experience was amazing on both a professional and personal level. I gained invaluable training and real-world experience, and further developed my skills as a lawyer. On a personal level, the experience was incredibly rewarding. Helping this client, with her four children, and achieving a wonderful result for her gave me a terrific feeling and true sense of accomplishment. By handling this case, I also have become more mindful of others who may be indirectly affected by cases in which I'm involved."

Of course, Craig, Irika and Kristen don't care about "awards" either - and the stories about the successes of their pro bono services are not only heartwarming, but extremely meaningful to the clients that they have represented, and to so many others. No awards necessary.

Please feel free to give Lisa Stadig Elliot, our devoted executive director, a telephone call or send her an e-mail and let her know that you'd like to find a way to get involved in one of our pro bono programs. I'm hoping - and expecting - that you'll be very pleased that you did.

We extend our sincere and heartfelt thanks and deep appreciation not only to Craig, Irika and Kristen, but also to each of the scores of other OCBA members who have provided dedicated services to so many members of our community.

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Peter M. Alter, a partner in the Southfield office of Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss, is the 79th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

Published: Thu, Aug 11, 2011