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Pro Bono awards honor those who provide legal assistance to the poor

September 16, 2019

Chancellor Deborah Gambrell of Hattiesburg was honored Sept. 12 as the recipient of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project’s Beacon of Justice Award.

Pro Bono awards

Others who were honored for their legal assistance to the poor were attorneys Shakita Taylor of Hattiesburg, Ellen Robb of Ridgeland and Seth Shannon of Jackson, the Lee County Bar Association, and the law firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings. The awards were presented during the annual Pro Bono Awards Reception in Jackson. The program was held at the Two Mississippi Museums.
MVLP provides legal assistance to low income people through direct legal representation and legal clinics for self-represented litigants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. MVLP relies on the donated time of attorneys who volunteer.

The Beacon of Justice Award is given annually to a member of the judiciary who provides outstanding leadership in promoting and supporting equal access to justice, said Sam H. Buchanan of Hattiesburg, Executive Director of the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and a member of the MVLP Board of Directors. Judge Gambrell is an advocate for ensuring access to justice for all and a leader in organizing programs to provide legal help. As senior chancellor of the 10th Chancery District that includes Forrest, Lamar, Marion, Pearl River and Perry counties, she continues to encourage attorneys to be involved in pro bono representation. Judge Gambrell worked with Christian Services of Hattiesburg, Legal Services and the South Central Bar to organize extensive pro bono efforts in 2012 and has continued to work with pro se clinics since that time. She assisted in developing templates to assist self-represented litigants to use throughout the 10th Chancery, and has shared the value of templates with her fellow judges across the state.

Judge Gambrell is a member of the Access to Justice Commission, which was created by the Supreme Court to develop a unified strategy to improve access to the civil courts for the poor. She is part of the leadership team of the Mississippi Family First Initiative pilot program for Pearl River County. The pilot program is aimed at preventing child neglect and reducing the number of children who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care. She serves on the Mississippi Commission on Guardianship and Conservatorship, which developed the GAP Act that was adopted by the 2019 Legislature as a complete overhaul of laws of guardianships and conservatorships. The GAP Act will utilize the state’s electronic court case filing system, Mississippi Electronic Courts, to provide improved oversight and accountability of guardianships and conservatorships. The 10th Chancery District serves as a pilot court district for integrating MEC’s technology into provisions of the GAP Act, which will go into effect in January 2020. Judge Gambrell served on the Board of Directors of South Mississippi Legal Services for more than 10 years.

Judge Gambrell has served almost nine years as a chancellor of the 10th Chancery Court District. Gov. Haley Barbour appointed her to the court on Jan. 4, 2011. Before her appointment to the Chancery Court, she served as a Forrest County Justice Court Judge for 30 years while also maintaining a private law practice in Hattiesburg.

She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in political science from the University of Southern Mississippi and a law degree, cum laude, from Mississippi College School of Law. She is married to Vincent Chambers. She has six daughters and six grandchildren.

The Pro Bono Awards recognize attorneys, law firms and legal organizations that were involved in significant pro bono efforts, said MVLP Executive Director Gayla Carpenter-Sanders.

Taylor, a Pro Bono Award recipient, “has maintained a consistent presence with MVLP for the last decade,” Carpenter-Sanders said. Taylor has personally handled more than a dozen cases for MVLP clients, including divorce and child support cases. Recently, she was able to obtain visitation rights for a father who had been unable to see his daughter. Taylor has also spoken at “know your rights” clinics.

Pro Bono awards

Taylor practices family law in Hattiesburg, serves as public defender for the city of Hattiesburg, and does contract work for Legal Services to provide affordable legal representation to low income clients. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Rust College and a law degree from Mississippi College School of Law. She is the author of Broken, Bound, and Naked: Journey to Healing, which chronicles her experience as a rape survivor.

Pro Bono Award recipient Ellen Robb of Ridgeland has worked as an MVLP volunteer since 2013. Her recent volunteer work has included establishing legal guardianships for children being raised by persons other than parents, so that the children could enroll in school and have stable homes. She represented low income clients in obtaining divorce so that they could have stable lives, Carpenter-Sanders said. Robb also successfully assisted a disabled woman who had been sued for unpaid credit card debt incurred by her late husband, without the woman’s knowledge. Outside MVLP, Robb attended training to provide legal support to individuals affected during the recent ICE raids.

Pro Bono awards

Robb is a member of the Mitchell Day law firm in Ridgeland. She is vice president of the Board of Directors for the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association. She is Regional Chair for Alabama and Mississippi for the American Bar Associations subsection Women in Dispute Resolution, and is vice chair of the ABA’s General Practice Solo Division’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee. Robb earned a Bachelor of Science degree in international trade from Auburn University, an MBA from the University of Memphis and a law degree, with honors, from the University of Mississippi School of Law. She worked as a law clerk for Judge Leslie Southwick when he served on the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

Attorney Seth Shannon of Jackson was honored with the Curtis E. Coker Access to Justice Award. The award is presented annually to recognize outstanding pro bono legal services. Shannon, an MVLP volunteer since 2011, has handled 62 cases, assisting in some capacity with every type of legal issue for which MVLP provides assistance, said Courtney Cockrell, vice chair of the MVLP Board of Directors. Shannon was recently recognized by the American Bar Association as an ABA Free Legal Answers Pro Bono Leader for his work answering questions posed through the legal help website ms.freelegalanswers.org.

Shannon is an active volunteer with the Mission First Legal Aid Office and is on the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Housing Partnership. He is on the Young Lawyers Division Homeless Youth and Disaster Legal Assistance committees. He is a member of the Mississippi Bar’s Access to Justice Committee and the Community Outreach & Pro Bono Committee of the Capital Area Bar Association.

The Curtis E. Coker Award is named in honor of the late Mississippi Bar President who was a leading advocate for making legal services available to all. The Mississippi Pro Bono Project, the forerunner of MVLP, was founded in 1982 during Coker’s presidency.

Pro Bono awards

The Lee County Bar Association was presented with a Pro Bono Award for its efforts that included conducting 16 free legal clinics since the Lee County Chancery Court began conducting quarterly family law clinics in 2014. More than 300 people have received assistance as a result of the efforts of 83 attorneys who volunteered their time, Carpenter-Sanders said.

“We are grateful for their commitment to access to justice for under served Mississippians,” Carpenter-Sanders said.

The concerted efforts in Lee County grew into a district-wide program of free legal clinics in the First Chancery District in 2015, and statewide free legal clinics in 2018 and 2019. Senior Chancellor Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo, co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission, worked with the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, the University of Mississippi School of Law Pro Bono Initiative and bar associations across eight counties to schedule a free legal clinic in every courthouse of the First Chancery District. Free family law clinics held in Aberdeen, Booneville, Corinth, Fulton, Iuka, New Albany, Pontotoc and Tupelo provided assistance to low income people in matters such as divorce, child support, guardianship, emancipation and name change.

The Lee County Bar Association’s efforts inspired former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. to push chancellors and attorneys to conduct free legal clinics statewide in 2018. Last year, more than 450 Mississippi lawyers provided more than 1,300 hours of free legal services to 850 Mississippian. For that effort, the American Bar Association in July honored the Mississippi Bar as the recipient of the 2019 Harrison Tweed Award. The prestigious award recognizes bar associations that have made extraordinary efforts to improve civil legal services or indigent defense services for people living in poverty. It was the second time the Mississippi Bar received the Harrison Tweed Award. The Bar’s work to found the Pro Bono Project in 1982 also garnered a Harrison Tweed Award.

Free family law clinics scheduled across the state this year are on track to exceed the number of clients served in 2018, according to Access to Justice Commission Executive Director Nicole McLaughlin of Tupelo.

Volunteer attorneys working through MVLP during the past year donated 2,193 hours of service worth an estimated $383,775, said Kimberly Merchant, chair of the MVLP Board of Directors.

MVLP recognized the regional law firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP for its financial contributions. The Bradley Arant firm was honored with the MVLP Chairman of the Board’s Torchbearer Award. Jennie Eichelberger, Immediate Past Chair of the MVLP Board of Directors, thanked the firm for “being an unwavering, leading force in providing financial resources to MVLP so that MVLP can carry out its programs.” Since 2014, the firm contributed $36,100 that financed 30 pro se legal clinics across the state, impacting more than 250 individuals, and supported MVLP’s direct representation of needy clients, impacting more than 150 individuals, Eichelberger said.

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