ABA Recognizes Mississippi’s Efforts to Provide Civil Legal Assistance to the Poor

June 29, 2020

The Mississippi Access to Justice Commission and the Mississippi Bar have been honored by the American Bar Association for their efforts to provide free civil legal assistance to poor people.

The Access to Justice Commission and the Mississippi Bar received the E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award for their efforts to provide free family law clinics statewide. 

Presentation of the Gambrell Professionalism Award is the second time that the ABA has recognized the efforts in Mississippi to expand civil legal services to people living in poverty. The ABA presented the Mississippi Bar with the 2019 Harrison Tweed Award for its role in expanding the free legal clinics statewide.

The award recognizes efforts to improve civil legal services to people living in poverty. At the urging of former Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., free family law clinics were held in every Chancery Court district in the state in 2018 and again in 2019. The Mississippi Legislature in 2018 declared June Access to Justice Month, with many of the free clinics held in June. Other free clinics were spread out across the year.

The free legal clinics were offered for poor people who could not afford to hire a lawyer. Local lawyers volunteered their time to help with issues including uncontested divorce, child custody, guardianships, adoptions, legal name change and emancipation. Some also assisted with expungements, opening the way for people to seek better employment opportunities.

In 2018, more than 450 Mississippi lawyers provided more than 1,300 hours of free legal services to 850 people in need. In 2019, more than 1,075 people received assistance, according to Nicole McLaughlin, executive director of the Access to Justice Commission and director of the Mississippi Bar’s Access to Justice Initiative. Legal clinic events were organized and supported by the Access to Justice Commission, chancellors and their staffs, the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, Legal Services offices, local bar associations and volunteer lawyers.

Mike Randolph, Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, said, “It is my sincere hope that we can continue to expand voluntary, free legal assistance to our citizens. I’ve attended multiple clinics and have spoken to and encouraged the recipients, as well as the courts, clerks, staffs, and attorneys who sacrifice their time and skills to benefit others. There is nothing like witnessing the joy of families when adoption orders are signed.”

Amanda Tollison, President of the Mississippi Bar, said, “The free legal clinics helped show lawyers and law students across the state the importance of providing pro bono legal services. While giving lawyers the chance to serve as mentors to law students, these clinics also provided an opportunity for the local bar to volunteer together, rather than as adversaries, to reach a common goal: serving the public. In turn, the clinics helped build a positive perception of the legal profession to the local communities and enhanced and improved the professionalism of existing and aspiring lawyers.”

Chancellor Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo, co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission, said, “I’m thankful for the award because it recognizes the hard work of the lawyers in the entire state. The attorneys who are volunteering should be acknowledged and commended for their sacrifice and their giving hearts. This prestigious honor encourages all of us to continue giving to people in need.”

McLaughlin said, “We are proud that Mississippi has been recognized again for the statewide legal clinic project. In Mississippi, approximately 20 percent of our residents live below the poverty level. This project helps prevent people from having to sacrifice necessities for legal services and expands access to the courts. We are fortunate to have the support of the legal community and hope the project continues to grow and help people across the State.

Former Arkansas Bar Association President Brian Rosenthal nominated the Access to Justice Commission and the Mississippi Bar for the Gambrell Professionalism Award. Rosenthal said in the nomination, “The Mississippi model of leadership from the top judicial officer and the bar at all levels can serve as a model for all states.”

“Sometimes you see where dentists gather to assist those who cannot afford services and serve hundreds of people in a day or two. Even though the Mississippi program cannot address all issues like a single dentist visit might be able to do, it can relieve the pain of uncertainty on how and whether to proceed and marshal resources available for assistance,” Rosenthal wrote in the nomination.

The Gambrell Professionalism Awards, administered by the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism and supported by the E. Smythe Gambrell Fund for Professionalism, recognize the nation’s exemplary, innovative, and ongoing professionalism programs in law schools, bar associations, courts and other legal organizations that help ensure the maintenance of the highest principles of integrity and dedication to the legal profession and the public. The Gambrell Awards were established in 1991 and are named for E. Smythe Gambrell, who founded the Legal Aid Society in Atlanta, where he practiced law from 1922 until his death in 1986. Gambrell served as American Bar Association and American Bar Foundation president from 1955 to 1956.