Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Mission First Legal Aid honors pro bono volunteers

October 26, 2018

Retired Chancellor W. O. “Chet” Dillard of Clinton gave free legal advice to help the poor, and continued his work at Mission First Legal Aid even as illness claimed his voice.

Retired Chancellor W. O. “Chet” Dillard

Mission First Legal Aid honored Judge Dillard posthumously with its Distinguished Pro Bono Service Award on Thursday, Oct. 25. Rankin County Court and Youth Court Judge Thomas Broome was honored as the Judicial Ambassador of Justice. Attorney W. Robert Jones III was honored as Volunteer Attorney of the Year. The Ridgeland office of Butler Snow was honored as Firm of the Year for its volunteer service.

Oct. 21-27 is National Pro Bono Week.

Mission First Legal Aid has a small staff, and relies heavily on the work of volunteers, said Director Carlyn Hicks. “The volunteer lawyers are the heart and soul of the legal aid ministry,” she said. From August 2017 through July 2018, volunteer attorneys gave more than 1,900 hours of free legal service, Hicks said. Mission First Legal Aid has served about 14,000 people since the program began in 2006.

Judge Dillard, who retired from the Hinds Chancery bench in 1995, came regularly to the Mission First Legal Aid Office in Jackson. He would take a stack of case folders of people needing legal help and call each one, talking at length about their problems. He solved some problems over the phone. Those who needed more extensive help were referred for followup with other attorneys. He continued to work with Legal Aid, offering research and other assistance, even when illness left him unable to speak.

“Even when he lost his voice, he was still trying to figure out how to be a voice for those who do not have a voice,” Hicks said.

Judge Dillard died July 30, 2017, at 87. His wife of 62 years, Marilyn Dillard, and son Robert Dillard, accepted the award at a ceremony at Mississippi College School of Law.

Mission First Legal Aid implemented a new award this year, naming Broome the Judicial Ambassador of Justice. Hicks said that Judge Broome has demonstrated the highest standards of judicial excellence in the pursuit of justice. This award “commends judges who have worked tirelessly for the betterment of the legal profession and the public, while exemplifying integrity, wisdom, and impartiality,” said Hicks, who represented indigent parents in Rankin County Youth Court for five years before she became director of Mission First Legal Aid.

Judge Broome praised the work of Mission First Legal Aid. “We have to make sure everyone gets their day in court and gets their matters heard,” he said. “I can’t tell you the lives you have touched and the impact it has had.”

Jones, recipient of the Volunteer Attorney of the Year Award, was recognized not only for giving lots of time, but also for going above and beyond what is asked of a volunteer attorney. Hicks described Jones’ work with a former Mission First client who needed more help and showed up at his law office rather than contacting Mission First. Jones took time out of his private practice workday to assist her.

Jones does pro bono work in real estate matters, landlord-tenant disputes and consumer finance. He assists “people who don’t otherwise have access to a lawyer and the judicial system....I get a great deal of satisfaction out of doing this,” he said.

In recognizing the Butler Snow firm for its pro bono work, Hicks said the firm staffs numerous legal clinics for Mission First Legal Aid and takes case after case. Patricia Gandy, former director of Mission First Legal Aid, became pro bono counsel at Butler Snow in July 2017. Hicks said when she contacts Gandy for help with a list of cases, they are immediately placed with lawyers in the firm.

Gandy accepted the award for the firm. She said later, “Butler Snow is honored to partner with Mission First to provide pro bono services to our neighbors in Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties. Through Mission First and other civil legal aid providers, Butler Snow attorneys have the opportunity to serve the underserved and bring hope in otherwise bleak circumstances.”

Mississippi College School of Law students work with volunteer attorneys. Students are admitted to the limited practice of law under the supervision of attorneys. During the past year, 46 students did volunteer work, Hicks said.

Third year law student Kaylyn Caston of Utica said working with Mission First Legal Aid gave her experience, perspective and a sense of gratitude as well as furthering her education. It has been a unique opportunity to learn about practicing law while meeting the needs of people in desperate need of help. “It is designed to assist the under-served,” Caston said.