Six Michigan lawyers earn pro bono awards

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

From Latin meaning "for the good," pro bono services are something everyone knows lawyers provide, but few outside the legal profession can appreciate the extent of charitable legal work that goes on across the nation or the sheer number of hours donated every year.

In Michigan, six attorneys from across the state were presented with Pro Bono Service Awards from the Legal Services Corporation for their extensive contributions to their communities. Earlier this month the six were honored at the LSC board meeting held in Ann Arbor. The honorees included Charles Borgsdorf, Elizabeth Joy Fossel, Nino Green, Karen Glorio Luther, Angela Sherigan, and Michael Stanley.

Charles Borgsdorf has practiced law and given tirelessly of his personal time since graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1969. He joined the Board of the Washtenaw County Legal Aid Society, now Legal Services of South Central Michigan, in the 1970s and has served for 38 years in the capacity of chair or board member. During Borgsdorf's tenure, the LSSCM grew from a four-county program to a 13-county regional program that includes the statewide Michigan Poverty Law Program, Farmworker Legal Services, and the Michigan Immigration Rights Center.

Borgsdorf also serves as pro bono ethics counsel to LSSCM. Under his leadership many organizations have benefitted, including the substance abuse treatment program at Dawn Farms, the community counseling program HelpSource, outreach services for seniors through Neighborhood Seniors Services, the Arbor Hospice Foundation, the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, and the University Musical Society. Currently, Borgsdorf chairs the Advisory Board of C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

Borgsdorf was nominated for the LSC award for fostering a culture in which access to justice is a value held by all lawyers.

"I was honored to receive an award from the Legal Services Corporation. The corporation is a major funder of legal aid programs across the country, and its board is dedicated to providing legal assistance to those unable to afford it. Making legal services available to all is a duty of all lawyers, and I have tried to do my part," says Borgsdorf.

Elizabeth Joy Fossel was nominated for the award by Legal Aid of Western Michigan. A partner at Varnum in Grand Rapids, Fossel serves as the firm's Diversity and Inclusion Director. While her pro bono work has been tallied at 1,500 hours with a value of $400,000 through Varnum's program, Fossel also has served such organizations as the American Red Cross; Gerontology Network; Silent Observer, a crime stoppers program for the greater Grand Rapids area; Kent County Aids Foundation; and Odyssey of the Mind, which promotes creativity and problem-solving in Michigan students.

A fellow in the Michigan State Bar Foundation, Fossel is known for donating 200 hours every year to pro bono work and community service. She is committed to expanding Varnum's already noteworthy pro bono efforts.

"I was very honored to be recognized by the Legal Services Corporation, but my hat is really off to them for making free legal services possible throughout the country. Everyone should have access to justice, and, as lawyers, it is our privilege and responsibility to help make that happen whenever and wherever we can," says Fossel.

Nino Green was nominated for his pro bono award by Legal Services of Northern Michigan in recognition for his work as LSNM's chairperson and his ongoing donation of time to the LSNM Internet Representation Project, which provides legal counsel on an internet-based advice site. LSNM serves the Upper Peninsula and the northern tier of counties in the Lower Peninsula. It is the outgrowth of Upper Peninsula Legal Services, a 15-county program established in 1966 under Green's direction.

When he was practicing law, Green's partners estimated that 15 percent of his time was spent on pro bono work. Now retired, he continues to assist the community in rural Northern Michigan fashion--quietly helping others without expectation of credit or fanfare.

"Because we take profit from those who can afford to pay for access to justice, it is appropriate that we provide equal access to those who cannot afford to pay," says Green. "That is a responsibility we must accept if we are committed to the rule of law."

When award recipient Karen Glorio Luther was on the corporate counsel staff of Beaumont Hospital, she obtained and implemented funding opportunities for the Legal Aid for Children and Families Project to improve the health and welfare of low-income children and their families. As an attorney working on the project, Luther helped families of sick children avoid eviction, challenged wrongful denials of Medicaid coverage, facilitated access to special education programs, improved living conditions that were unhealthy for people with asthma, obtained protective orders for victims of abuse or neglect, and secured unpaid child support.

Now serving as director for the LACF, Luther devotes countless volunteer hours to training health care professionals to recognize issues that affect the health of their patients, to identify and refer patients with legal problems, and to improve patient advocacy skills. Physicians, residents, nurses, social workers, medical students, and faculty have received training on poverty law and educational programs available to the patients they serve.

"Legal Aid for Children and Families has given me the opportunity to work with the incredible people at Legal Aid and Defender Association to make a positive difference in the lives of patients who need legal assistance. By allowing parents and doctors to focus on the child's health rather than on legal problems, we should be able to improve health outcomes. I am deeply honored to have received the pro bono award from the National Legal Services Corporation."

Angela Sherigan was nominated by Michigan Indian Legal Services for her work with their organization which aids low-income Native Americans. The organization's goals are to assist self-sufficiency, overcome discrimination, assist tribal governments, and preserve Native American families.

Sherigan is managing partner at Wojnecka & Sherigan in Macomb County. In addition to her law practice, she is the Associate Judge for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee. She serves as chair of the State Bar of Michigan Standing Committee on American Indian Law, chair-elect of the American Indian Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan, and immediate past president of the Women's Lawyers Association of Michigan.

Sherigan's commitment to Native American culture is evidenced by the time and expertise she has volunteered over the past 10 years to the Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation and Repatriation Alliance. This nonprofit organization seeks to protect human remains that are culturally related to the present-day alliance of 13 Michigan tribes. Repatriation of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and items of cultural import comprise the highest priorities for Native Americans and tribal governments.

"It is ironic to be nominated and awarded for periodically doing what others do every day," says Sherigan.

Michael Stanley, a 2009 graduate of Cooley Law School, also was among the award reciplients. Although new to the legal profession, Stanley began his pro bono work with Legal Services of Eastern Michigan in 2011 at the LSEM office in Flint and has contributed more than 1,000 hours of pro bono service in the past year.

Stanley started by taking on senior citizens' cases then became involved in the Center for Fair Housing, where he negotiated settlements for fair housing complaints. He has since become expert in cases in which clients were wrongfully billed by utility companies. Stanley has saved tens of thousands of dollars for low-income seniors, families, and people with disabilities, for whom a utility shut-off could be life threatening.

Formerly a business owner, Stanley earned his J.D. and, more recently, his master of public administration, after losing his sight. Even with his own challenges, Stanley remains a mentor and role model for young people in the Flint area.

"I actually began my pro bono service based upon the philosophy I learned from Cooley Associate Dean John Nussbaumer," says Stanley. "He taught me that a legal education is a 'privilege' and that giving back to the community where you make your living in is necessarily a part of becoming a good attorney."

Stanley says it was his weekly commitment to LSEM that exposed him to the needs of his community and a variety of practice areas that he otherwise might not have learned. His work with elder law agencies, the Michigan Department of Human Services, and other nonprofit organizations is critical to the senior citizens and disabled citizens in his community.

"Most importantly, the clients and their families that I have had the privilege to help are from my community and have allowed me to become part of their lives," he said. "They have helped me begin to fill a new role in the community as an attorney and counselor."

Published: Thu, Aug 16, 2012