The tables were turned Friday on Judge Vic VanderSchoor as he stood before dozens of lawyers and his colleagues.
VanderSchoor was prepared to do his usual job of handing out plaques at the Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society’s attorney recognition luncheon.
He didn’t know the board had voted in secret to honor the Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge for his staunch support and dedication to the nonprofit organization.
Tears welled in his eyes as he read his name on the Al Yencopal Award, named for a longtime Superior Court judge who died in 1993.
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“It was pretty sneaky of them, but I’m amazed,” VanderSchoor said.
He wasn’t alone.
Richland attorney George Telquist was on lunch break from trial when law partner Andrea Clare got a message wondering where they were.
They arrived just in time for Telquist to receive the Gene Schuster Award, for taking on four challenging family law cases this past year without pay. He was appreciative of the honor, but said it wasn’t necessary.
“It is a privilege to do what we do. It is a privilege to serve anybody, whether they’re paying or not,” Telquist told the Herald.
The Legal Aid Society each year recognizes Mid-Columbia lawyers who either supported the organization or found time aside form their paying caseloads to accept low-income clients who might be denied access to legal help.
Senior Judge Ed Shea with U.S. District Court was the featured speaker for the 14th annual luncheon. He applauded the efforts the lawyers make to provide access to justice, recognizing it isn’t always easy to fit in pro bono work.
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.
Executive Director Barb Otte said 102 cases have been assigned to lawyers for full representation in 2014.
Otte said she knows she can rely on Telquist to take the tough cases that no one else will, and get results that please the clients.
The Gene Schuster Award is in memory of a lawyer who took pro bono work for Legal Aid and helped plan attorney seminars to generate money.
Telquist, a Gonzaga University School of Law graduate, has been practicing since 1997. He’s a partner in the law firm of Telquist Ziobro McMillen Clare.
He admits that when he was a young lawyer, he didn’t think people were entitled to anything without paying a reasonable fee because that helped them appreciate and see the value in it.
Telquist doesn’t know at what point he started taking legal aid cases, but now he feels fortunate that he’s had enough success with his practice and can “help people in tough litigation spots.”
The father of four said he’s found pro bono work actually is the most rewarding part of the job. “If I had my way at this point in my career, I would only take these clients,” said Telquist, suggesting that his physician wife could support the family.
Legal Aid operates mostly on grants and fundraisers, but does welcome private and public donations. Telquist encourages people who are looking to make charitable contributions during the holiday season to consider the organization.
VanderSchoor has been active with the Legal Aid Society since the group’s creation in 1988. He stayed on the board even after he was elected to the Superior Court bench in 1997.
On Friday, he was asked to describe what it was like practicing before Yencopal.
VanderSchoor said the late judge was “extremely nice to everyone” and “truly cared about humanity and cared about the law.”
Attorney Jacqueline Shea-Brown, in surprising VanderSchoor with the award, said he’s “served Legal Aid through the years and shown the humanity that he speaks of through Judge Yencopal.”
VanderSchoor said he was genuinely touched because he knows the decision to honor him was made by “a bunch of wonderful people and hard workers.”
The judge said both Yencopal and Schuster cared for their clients long ago, and he continues to support the organization because it is something the community and its residents need.
“Working with people who are willing to volunteer sometimes are the best people to work with,” VanderSchoor said.