Fall Foundation Reception recognizes attorneys who address unmet legal needs of low-income residents

November 22, 2019
President’s Message By Lori McMaster

The Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner, and Americans will once again gather to express their appreciation for their many blessings. As I do every year, I will begin by giving thanks for my wonderful husband, Dave McMaster, who is the foundation of all the best things that have happened to me in my life. As a bar association, we, too, have much to be thankful for, as was amply demonstrated during the Allegheny County Bar Foundation’s Fall Foundation Reception in October. Over 100 guests gathered to acknowledge, and to give thanks for, local attorneys in both the public and private sectors who address the unmet legal needs of low-income residents in our community. The evening was both powerful and moving, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the many wonderful attorneys who were recognized.

Katherine Norton received the Edward G. O’Connor Fellows Award, which grants honorary Fellows membership to outstanding attorneys working in public service. Norton is the Assistant Professor and Supervising Attorney of the Duquesne University School of Law Family Law Clinic. Norton and her clinical students work at the self-help center of the Family Division to assist low-income pro se litigants prepare and file pleadings, and, in many instances, the students then appear on behalf of the litigants to argue motions and conduct hearings.

Norton is keenly aware of the need for such pro se assistance.

“In 80-90% of family law related cases, at least one side is pro se. This is staggering to think about and especially considering what is at stake in cases such as these. The Family Law Clinic hopes to help low income litigants navigate the family law system with custody, support or any issues that they have pending in the court. It is so rewarding helping someone understand the process and guide them through it. I have the added honor of helping students understand the importance of the work in this arena and watching them grow as future lawyers and bring fresh perspective to the system and helping those in need,” she said.

The Presidential Merit Award was given to Kenneth Argentieri of Duane Morris. As managing partner of the firm’s Pittsburgh office, Argentieri has regularly led the office to 100% attorney pro bono participation for the past several years. Argentieri oversees the firm’s associates on veterans’ disability appeals, on asylum claims and on prisoners’ civil rights claims. Throughout his career, Argentieri has made substantial contributions to the delivery of free legal services while volunteering with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project (PIP).

“I have enjoyed working on the many pro bono matters that I have handled over the years. However, it has given me great satisfaction to lead both NLSA and the Bar Foundation as President so that I could attempt to have a broader impact on providing free legal services to the poor. The need is great and so many devoted attorneys want to help. These organizations are the “heart” that keeps the system running,” said Argentieri.

The 2019 Pro Bono Achievement Awards recognized the ACBA Immigration Law Committee Pro Bono Asylum Project with the New Initiative Award. Committee Chair Matthew Phillips and Immediate Past-Chair Adrian Roe accepted the award on behalf of the Immigration Law Committee, which partnered with the University of Pittsburgh School of Law to establish a pro bono project to assist individuals and families who are seeking asylum in the United States.

The ACBA Immigration Law Committee cases are screened by Pitt Law for eligibility and referred through the ACBF Pro Bono Center to volunteer attorneys who are matched with an experienced immigration attorney to serve as a mentor during the case.

“Volunteer work with the ACBA Pro Bono Asylum Project has provided me with an important opportunity to utilize the professional skills that I have honed as an immigration lawyer. In so doing, I have been able to help others to engage with the asylum process more effectively, and enable applicants to get a full and fair hearing on the merits of their asylum claim. On a personal level, it is deeply satisfying to know that, as lawyers, we can have a direct and positive impact on the lives of others – including unaccompanied children – who live in fear of persecution,” Phillips said.

Roe noted, “my participation in the asylum project (and I believe the participation of others) was motivated by the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. The bar effort to promote diversity and protect persecuted persons from around the world is a fitting response to this tragedy.”

Alcoa Corporation and Arconic Inc. received the Corporation Award in recognition of their participation in the Landlord Tenant Pro Bono Project, which is a collaborative pro bono effort between Alcoa Corp., Arconic Inc. and Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP to assist clients in navigating landlord-tenant disputes.

“Volunteering for the project provides a rewarding opportunity to connect with people by listening to them and giving them helpful legal advice during a challenging time in their lives,” said Joshua Stein of Arconic.

Attorney volunteers staff a hotline, and also provide free representation for families and individuals who have been denied Section 8 and public housing. Since the project started, the attorneys have provided advice to approximately 1,000 callers.

Nick Oliver, Senior Counsel for Alcoa’s Legal Department, said, “my father was a small-town lawyer in West Virginia. I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people solve problems. As in-house counsel with Alcoa, I encounter the kinds of issues faced by a large corporation. At the Landlord Tenant Project, I have the opportunity to help real people facing a real-life problem – eviction from their homes. The work is not easy, but without the Landlord Tenant Project, these clients would be left to navigate a complex legal system on their own. My favorite aspect of pro bono work is the joy that I get in connecting with clients as people – imparting hope, dignity and kindness to people who may not regularly receive it in their lives.”

The Young Lawyer Award was bestowed upon Lacee Ecker of American Eagle Outfitters. Ecker was recognized for her dedicated and persistent efforts to help clients with low incomes clear their criminal records.

“Volunteering with the Criminal Records Expungement Project has been a rewarding experience for me both personally and professionally. Through this project I am able to use my training and education to help clients who are desperately in need of legal assistance. It’s amazing to experience the gratitude and joy of clients who have completed this process and now have a renewed sense of optimism about their future,” said Ecker.

Jennifer McGarrity of KidsVoice was honored with the Lorraine M. Bittner Public Interest Attorney Award, which is given to an attorney who is employed by an entity whose primary function is the delivery of civil legal services to people with low incomes. McGarrity has practiced at KidsVoice for over 14 years, during which time she has provided hundreds of children with high quality advocacy at dependency hearings, at termination of parental rights hearings, at magistrate hearings, at expungement hearings and in educational due process matters.

“It is an honor to be recognized for my work at KidsVoice and in the child welfare and education systems. I am very fortunate to be able to spend my days advocating for children and working to improve the systems that serve them. And it is a privilege to do so alongside the many passionate, hardworking and talented professionals in my office and throughout the system,” said McGarrity.

McGuireWoods LLP received the Law Firm Award in recognition of the team of Benjamin Sitter, Emma Donahey and Elizabeth Thomas, who were appointed by the Hon. Cathy Bissoon to represent a Pennsylvania inmate with multiple sclerosis who alleged that prison employees deliberately neglected his significant medical needs, violating his constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment.

Thomas said, “the impact of such work is widespread as the legal community has the opportunity to focus attention on the incarcerated population that may not have a demonstrative voice in the legal system otherwise. We found personal satisfaction in using our legal talents to help the inmate in complex discovery and pretrial matters that likely would have been unascertainable and especially difficult for him to complete himself.”

The Jane F. Hepting Individual Attorney Award was given to Hilary Spatz in recognition of her exemplary commitment to pro bono legal services to immigrant children and their families. In collaboration with Jewish Family & Community Services (JFCS), Hilary led the volunteer effort to represent immigrant children who are seeking Special Juvenile Immigrant Status so as to remain in the United States. She worked closely with the Allegheny County Family Court Division to create a procedure whereby these children could file petitions to obtain the specialized findings of fact and orders of court required by immigration judges to allow them to proceed through the immigration process.

In the last year, she worked with JFCS in collaboration with the KidsVoice attorneys to expand that process to include unaccompanied minors who are also in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody so they don’t lose their immigration options while in detention. In addition to handling cases herself, Spatz trained 65 volunteer attorneys at several CLE programs over the past few years.

Spatz said, “It has been a challenging and fulfilling experience working with the immigration team at JFCS assisting immigrant children and their families. To be able to use my career work in the Family Division to serve a need outside of my private practice has been a bonus. Working with colleagues on this pro bono project has been an additional unexpected and welcome highlight of the work.”

These extraordinary attorneys, and others like them, are the driving force in promoting justice for all in our legal system, and their selfless volunteer service on behalf of residents in Allegheny County is something for which we as individuals, and as a bar association, are grateful. Happy Thanksgiving to them and to all of my extraordinary bar association colleagues! May the good things of life be yours in abundance not only at Thanksgiving but throughout the coming year.

Please do share any thoughts or questions with me at mcmaster@pitt.edu or 412-648-2359.

All my best, Lori.