The National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) plays host to a duo of celebratory events this week. On June 26, 2014 at the annual Exemplar Award Dinner, NLADA will honor its 2014 Beacon of Justice winners -- an impressive list of innovative law firms who are being recognized for "advancing policies and practices that provide pathways to justice and opportunity, while also enhancing the representation provided to clients." During the ceremony, honoree Bruce N. Kuhlik, executive vice president and general counsel of Merck & Co. Inc., will be presented with the Exemplar Award and the Kutak-Dodds Prizes to Ellen Katz, litigation/executive director at the William E. Morris Institute for Justice and Edward Ungvarsky, capital defender at the Office of the Capital Defender for Northern Virginia.
Held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C., the prestigious event according to NLADA President and CEO, Jo-Ann Wallace, "brings together equal justice leaders from all the segments -- the private bar, legal aid and public defense advocates who are on the ground every day, the corporate bar leaders and advocates who care about access to counsel and who are united under that banner."
As a follow up to the dinner is an invitation-only, celebratory Leadership Appreciation Luncheon on June 27, when NLADA will present U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the Justice John Paul Stevens Lifetime Achievement Award for her exceptional contributions as jurist, as advocate, and as a scholar. The event will take place at the historic Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. and is NLADA's resounding thank you to the board, friends, supporters, partners, for their tireless efforts.
Says Wallace, "during our centennial celebration, Justice Stevens allowed the organization to name our lifetime achievement award after him moving forward, to honor his contributions to justice. We are thrilled that Justice Stevens himself will be there to help us honor Justice Ginsberg and to give her the award."
Interview segment with NLADA Executive Director and CEO, Jo-Ann Wallace
Moving forward, what is the focus of the NLADA?
We are actually at a very important time for NLADA. 2013 was the first full year of our second century. We are continuing to focus on work that will promote innovation in the field as well as building institutions. Historically NLADA played a leadership role in the development of our public defender system and played a leadership role in the creation of the legal services corporation and other important justice institutions.
A key factor in our work that will always continue is making sure that legal aid and public defender organizations have access to adequate resources. This year specifically, we are working on both sides of the aisle to enhance the capacity of our community to use research and data in order to promote effective justice policies -- the fair administration of justice and also to support expanding funding.
In this information technology age it is important to use the resources we have as effectively as possible. We have an initiative to promote strategic advocacy...systemic advocacy in the legal aid community to support the field's ability, to maximize impact, and to produce high quality outcomes on the one hand while on the other hand, working in ways that are also cost effective. We work on policy initiatives and one of those includes looking at ways to strengthen collaborations on the criminal justice side [in order] to promote fair and effective public defense and criminal justice policy through utilizing best practices and looking at policies and procedures that the entirety of the criminal justice system can come together and support to promote the health of the system.
At the end of the day it's about achieving our vision of making sure there are qualified counsel in every jurisdiction in the U.S., so that the quality of justice that happens in our communities does not depend on the amount of money you have. Whether you stand accused of a crime or you are facing the loss of your livelihood or to protect your health or your home--that if you can't afford to pay for counsel, there is access to one.
What makes someone who has spent so much money on law school decide to be a public defender or pro bono lawyer?
People that have a passion for justice and a compassion for people -- now, how that develops is more complex. I think that often people who get involved in this work may have at some point had an experience with injustice and that is what ends up fueling that powerful passion for justice. There are many factors that go into it.
The legal profession doesn't always have the best reputation. When you think of lawyers, this community stands apart -- whether they are doing it as a full-time job, whether they are representing individuals on a volunteer basis--they are really modeling the best of the legal profession. And many people have no idea what starting salaries are for legal aid attorneys which can be in the $30,000 to $40,000 range for attorneys who come out of law school with $100,000 plus in debt. So it is unabiding passion that creates this community of people who are so giving of their talents and of themselves.
Founded in 1911, NLADA is America's oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to ensuring excellence in the delivery of legal services to those who cannot afford counsel. For more information about the National Legal Aid & Defender Association visit www.nlada.org.