Benton-Franklin Legal Aid gives awards to 5 this year

A young attorney who accepted at least seven pro bono cases this year and two men who have been law partners in the Tri-Cities for more than 32 years were commended Friday for their dedication to legal aid.

Jason Celski, Alan Gunter and Don Powell were in the spotlight at the Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society's 11th annual attorney recognition luncheon in Kennewick.

They were just three of dozens of 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 2011, the Legal Aid Society assigned 80 cases to lawyers for full representation, and had 41 clients attend a family law class and 18 clients participate in new bankruptcy classes.

Also recognized Friday were newly appointed Court Commissioner Jackie Stam for her 18 years of service to the organization and lawyer Sal Mendoza Jr., who has stepped down from the society board to focus on other obligations.

The Legal Aid Society 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 only can get an attorney 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 Debra L. Stephens, who said it is valuable for attorneys to receive the recognition of their peers and the community, along with the clients they are serving, for their good work.

The Benton-Franklin volunteer lawyer program is well-known throughout the state for its mass participation, and that's something to be proud of, she said.

Stephens, a Spokane native, compared legal aid to legal first aid.

She questioned what is happening to the rest of the population who can't afford, or don't believe they can afford, a lawyer, and aren't part of the "so-called 1 percent" of paying clients or the "income eligible" getting legal aid or pro bono representation.

The state never will have enough funding to meet all civil legal needs, but such organizations can't give up because of the at least 80 percent of residents who have no representation in court, she said.

"The beauty of the law is that it works because people believe in it," said Stephens, who expressed her heartfelt appreciation to the volunteers. They are keeping democracy on the front lines with their legal services.

Celski, a 1997 Richland High graduate, received the Gene Schuster Award in memory of the lawyer who took pro bono work for Legal Aid and helped plan attorney seminars to generate money for the organization.

Celski has taken seven to eight domestic cases this year, sometimes two or three at a time, and is expecting a couple more before the year is over. Executive Director Barb Otte said she will email Celski's assistant and he always accepts.

Celski -- who practices in family law, personal injury, landlord/tenant disputes and criminal law -- said he does it for the community.

"I know there are a lot of people out there who can't afford legal services, so I figure it's my way to help out," he said.

Gunter and Powell were recipients of the Al Yencopal Award, named for the longtime Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge who died in 1993.

The Powell & Gunter law firm of Richland started in 1979 with a handshake, but the partnership will end with Gunter's plans to retire in August. Their "office practice" focuses on real estate, wills, probate and business work.

Gunter took on two pro bono cases this year, and the partners joke that they were honored Friday for their longevity in practice and ability to get along for almost 33 years.

Powell said that during the years they have worked with people "to get them to resolve their disputes." Gunter added that they don't like to go to court because "people lose too much money when they go to court."

Stam spent 18 years with the Cowan Moore law firm before her appointment Nov. 4 to the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench. As a part-time court commissioner, she is presiding over the family law and settlement dockets, and juvenile court, and can no longer practice law.

Stam said she has numerous certificates hanging on her wall recognizing the pro bono work she did over the years, but Friday's honor was unexpected and even more appreciated because it wraps up all her efforts as a lawyer.

Mendoza can't remember exactly when he joined the Legal Aid Society's board but believes he is stepping down after about eight years.

He was surprised by his colleagues' recognition, but said he needs to "temporarily back away" because of his recent appointment to the Columbia Basin College Board of Trustees. This new appointment will require a lot of his time, said Mendoza, who wants to immerse himself in the opportunity and make sure that the integrity and quality CBC is known for remains.

"I really appreciate the honor. It's incredible," said Mendoza, who in 2002 was an award recipient for his pro bono work.