John Matheson knew something was up Friday when he walked into a room full of lawyers and judges and saw his daughter, his three brothers and their significant others.
The Kennewick native and longtime attorney figured the Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society was going to recognize his brother, Craig Matheson, who retired from the Superior Court bench in April.
After all, Craig donned a tie for the occasion, his brother noted.
But the spotlight ended up on John Matheson for providing free legal service to low-income clients of the nonprofit organization. He received the Gene Schuster Award, in memory of a lawyer who took pro bono work for Legal Aid and helped plan attorney seminars to generate money.
Fellow lawyer Craig Liebler was honored with the Al Yencopal Award. Yencopal was a longtime Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge who died in 1993.
Liebler -- who focuses much of his practice on estate planning, elder law and guardianship -- said he enjoys doing cases for people who can't afford a lawyer and qualify for Legal Aid.
"If we didn't have people who were willing to step up and help, the system would break down," he told the Herald.
The organization held its 13th annual attorney recognition luncheon for Mid-Columbia lawyers who either support the Legal Aid Society or find time with their paying caseloads to accept clients who might be denied access to legal help.
Also recognized were Chvatal Law of Richland and former Legal Aid board member and Kennewick attorney Shelley Ajax for their outstanding dedication and service to the organization.
People in need of free legal service are screened to see if their civil matters qualify.
Typically, attorneys charge thousands of dollars if privately retained for such cases. The Legal Aid applicant must have an income that falls below national poverty guidelines.
The organization operates mostly on grants and fundraisers, but does welcome private and public donations.
The luncheon's featured speaker was retired Judge Paul Bastine, whose judicial time with Spokane County Superior Court was dedicated to family law. Bastine now is on the Washington State Bar Association's Board of Governors.
Pro bono lawyers don't solve all of the problems, but those volunteers "can be worth their weight in gold," Bastine said.
The former judge spoke of his own family's experience with a pro bono lawyer when he was a child. All people should "be treated with respect and dignity no matter their station in life," he said.
"Know that our very democracy depends upon justice for all," Bastine told the group.
Matheson started practicing in 1978 after graduating from Gonzaga University School of Law. He often handles landlord/tenant issues for Legal Aid but the number depends on when Executive Director Barb Otte calls him, he said.
"What little we do is not even a drop in the bucket for the need," said Matheson, who was pleasantly surprised by the award. "The only people who know that you do work like this are the people you do the work for, or Barb, or your secretary. So it's nice to be appreciated."
Liebler, another Gonzaga grad, came to the area in 1977.
A former president of the Benton Franklin Counties Bar Association, he's earned the nickname "Pink Panther" for the cotton candy-colored ball caps he's worn over the years. He now admits to owning underwear, a watch and other items with the cartoon character. He only takes off the hat when he's in church, the courtroom or a judge's chambers.
Despite seeing his entire office staff seated at a table, Liebler didn't have a clue his name would be called for the honor.
"Thank you very much," he said. "I really don't deserve this, but thank you."
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer