Tri-City attorneys honored for pro bono work

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldDecember 8, 2012 

Steve Defoe always will remember the grandmother he represented 10 years ago whose case sparked his interest in pro bono work.

The Kennewick attorney provided free legal service to the woman so she could raise her grandchild, because both parents used drugs.

"I helped her. It felt so good to help her that it just took off from there," Defoe told the Herald. "... The least I can do is help them navigate through the (judicial) system."

On Friday, Defoe was recognized for his "significant contributions" in 2012 to the Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society and its clients.

He was surprised to find himself in the spotlight at the society's 12th annual attorney recognition luncheon and even more so to later realize his entire office staff was seated at another table.

Defoe received the Gene Schuster Award for volunteering in the past year to take 14 third-party cases, which involved helping a relative get custody of a child or children when the court determined neither parent was suitable to raise them.

"He goes way and beyond, and he's a credit to the program," Bob Schultz, a Kennewick lawyer and the Legal Aid Society's treasurer, said in announcing Defoe.

The award is in memory of Gene Schuster, a lawyer who took pro bono work for Legal Aid and helped plan attorney seminars to generate money for the organization.

Linda Waite, a longtime lawyer who recently retired from her Richland practice, was honored with the Al Yencopal Award for her dedication to the organization year after year.

Yencopal was a longtime Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge who died in 1993.

Waite couldn't attend the luncheon because she was traveling to Washington State University in Pullman for her daughter's graduation.

"She's been doing good things for lots of people most of her adult life," said her law partner, Jan Armstrong. He informed the crowd that before Waite was a lawyer, one of her many degrees included a master's in social work.

The Legal Aid Society each year recognizes Tri-City lawyers who either supported the nonprofit organization or found time with their paying caseloads to accept low-income clients who otherwise might be denied access to legal help.

In 2012, 74 cases were assigned to lawyers for full representation, and 27 clients attended the family law class.

A total of 4,336 people either were referred or came to Legal Aid as a walk-in client for help, said Executive Director Barb Otte.

The organization screens people in need of free legal service for civil matters such as wills, debtor credit, bankruptcy, family law and restraining orders.

The applicant must have an income that falls below national poverty guidelines and can get an attorney only through Legal Aid if the other side already is represented.

Typically, attorneys can charge thousands of dollars if privately retained for such cases, but Legal Aid refers approved applicants to a lawyer who has offered his or her services for free.

The luncheon's featured speaker was Washington Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez. He's been on the state's highest court for 11 months and was elected in November to a six-year term.

Gonzalez, who made a number of public appearances Friday in the Tri-Cities, took the opportunity at lunch to speak with the judges and lawyers about "a number of interesting things going on with law across the state." He encouraged them to ask questions during the 30-minute talk.

The justice noted there are a lot more marriages now in Washington, and said he will conduct the first gay marriage Sunday at the Supreme Court. Gonzalez's law clerk will be marrying his partner of eight years, he said.

Gonzalez said it is key to support those who provide pro bono work and applauded the lawyers who have stepped up.

Defoe was working full time as general manager of Wiley Hurst's law firm in Yakima when he had the opportunity to participate in the four-year law clerk program through the Washington State Bar Association. He was admitted to the bar in 1996.

The original thought was that the program would make him a better manager at the firm, but Defoe said he got into family law and then knew he wanted his own practice.

Defoe said his decision to accept pro bono cases out of dependency court really is more about the children who need stable homes and getting the best possible outcome for them.

"We have kids that are in need of someone to take care of them and they need the courts to get involved," he said.

Attorney Mason Pickett said of his law partner: "He's a very deserving candidate. He really puts his heart and soul into it."

Waite, a Richland native, practiced law in the Tri-Cities since 1981. Her focus was family law and social security disability.

Also recognized at the luncheon were:

w The law firm of Bell, Brown & Rio, and Kim Ouren, for having the most participation in fundraising in 2012.

w Kari Hayles-Davenport and Kolleen Ledgerwood for taking four or more cases.

w Jeremy Bishop, Jason Celski, Tonya Meehan-Corsi and Alan Tindell for taking at least three cases.

w Laurie Magan, Patrick McBurney, Shea Meehan, Andrea Clare, Adrienne Farabee, Jeff Sperline, George Telquist and Katherine Sierra-Kelly for taking at least two cases.

w Debra Brown, who took eight cases for free mediation sessions.

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