The State Bar of Texas recently awarded Marshall attorney Ned Dennis the prestigious Frank J. Scurlock Award for his dedicated years of pro bono work, helping the indigent receive the legal services they need.
“It just made me appreciate that I was being recognized for many years of pro bono work, on the State Bar level,” Dennis said of being the 2018 award recipient.
Dennis was presented the award by the State Bar of Texas and its Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee while at the bar’s annual meeting, hosted recently at the Marriott Marquis in Houston. This award honors an individual attorney, in good standing, who has provided outstanding pro bono work.
“Both the State Bar of Texas and the Committee recognize (his) commitment to the provision of legal services to the poor as truly exceptional,” the State Bar of Texas stated.
The award is named for the late Frank J. Scurlock, the first chair of the Legal Services to the Poor in Civil Matters Committee, who was known for his tireless efforts to provide legal services to the poor. Last year’s recipient hailed from Houston.
Dennis said he accepted this year’s award on behalf of all solo practitioners, in small communities, who give of their time so willingly to help others.
“I think there are thousands contributing to their communities (through pro bono service), but really get no recognition for it,” the lawyer said.
And although pro bono is unpaid work, Dennis always believed that the service is the right thing to do. It’s something he’s been doing, in addition to his paid caseloads, since starting his career 48 years ago.
“Other people’s needs exceeded mine,” Dennis said of why he does pro bono work.
In the last two years, Dennis has donated approximately 310 hours and handled 80 cases, ranging from family law and probate to business transactions and landlord/tenant issues. In 2017, Lone Star Legal Aid recognized him for handling the most litigated cases. Most of his pro bono matters are referred by fellow attorneys, Lone Star Legal Aid, and various individuals and agencies.
“They’ll say: ‘Go see him; he’ll help you. He’ll see what he’ll do,” Dennis shared. “I think so many of us have done that for years and years. I’m not the only one — by any means.”
“There are so many people that need help and can’t afford a lawyer, so I’ve been doing this ever since I started practicing law,” Dennis said. “The opportunities are abundant to help people.”
While already dabbling in pro bono work, the service became more formal for Dennis in about 1984 when Marshall Lawyers Care was organized under the auspices of what is now Lone Star Legal Aid. The lawyer’s deep commitment and passion to help others further led him, in 1991, to become a charter member of the Pro Bono College for the State Bar of Texas. Dennis is now the lone remaining active charter member for the Pro Bono College.
“I cover the broad range,” he said of the civil pro bono services he offers.
For Dennis, it just feels good to give back. He’s proud to be a part of the Pro Bono College for the State Bar of Texas, and hopes to fulfill 30 years of service.
“I’ve got a couple of years to go,” Dennis said of reaching that 30-year milestone. “I just want to continue to be active in it as long as I can.”
The attorney’s involvement doesn’t stop with just the Pro Bono College. His latest venture is volunteering on the fairly new online pro bono legal advice clinic, called Texas Legal Answers.
“I started with them June of last year,” Dennis said, noting the site is a year old. “I signed up immediately.”
A pro bono advocate, Dennis encourages all attorneys to join in on the opportunity, especially since the need is so great.
“It’s taking money out of lawyers’ pockets, but that’s ok,” he said. “There are a lot of people that can’t afford to pay.”
“They need more lawyers who are willing to go online and spend a few minutes and answer a question or two on a regular basis,” Dennis said.
About Texas legal answers
The State Bar of Texas’s Legal Access Division (LAD) launched Texas Legal Answers last year to expand access to free civil legal service for low income Texans and provides a flexible pro bono opportunity for Texas attorneys.
According to Pro Bono Texas website, probonotexas.org, this legal advice clinic was created to remove lingering obstacles — such as geography, transportation, work schedules, and family obligations-that prevent many low income individuals from accessing free legal services. It also provides attorneys with a web-based pro bono opportunity – making pro bono from anywhere a reality. LAD’s Texas Legal Answers is housed on a simple, user friendly online platform.
“Low income Texans can access the website, TexasLegalAnswers.org, from their computer or smart device. They are prompted to answer eligibility questions, and if qualified, are allowed to post a civil legal question to a secure portal,” the website explains. Volunteer attorneys are then prompted that a new question has been added.”
The site is designed to be convenient for attorneys, allowing them to log into the question portal from anywhere, at any time, to select a client’s question and provide a brief legal answer.
“It doesn’t matter where you are. You can answer questions,” Dennis said. “It’s the law of Texas. They can answer questions no matter if they are in El Paso or Amarillo or Lubbock, Travis County or Dallas — or wherever — Denton, Tarrant, (even) some of the smaller counties too.”
According to Pro Bono Texas, attorneys will remain anonymous when posting a response and are covered by the program’s malpractice insurance. Dennis said the site is particularly helpful, especially since legal matters can be frightening.
“Sometimes it can be intimidating for people to go in and to see a lawyer, and so they don’t do it. And that causes a problem for them later on,” he said.
And while there are a multitude of resources available to assist people nowadays, the language of the law can be a bit confusing, which is why having access to a lawyer through Texas Legal Answers can be useful, he said.
“There are a lot of good things available now online to assist people, but even then, because the language of the law is not the language that people normally use on a day-to-day basis, they may have difficulty understanding. You can go on and get various (information) for divorces, adoptions and modifications and answers to various lawsuits, but again, there’s always questions that people have, maybe in filling out a form because they’re not familiar with it,” Dennis said.
“They can send in their questions (online),” he said.
Areas of law that are addressed on the TexasLegalAnswers.org website include active military, benefits, business, consumer, civil rights, criminal, education, elder, family, guardianship, housing, health, immigration, juvenile, tax, veterans, special populations and more.
“Fortunately there are lawyers in virtually every one of those areas that have some expertise and knowledge that can help — just not enough of them. They absolutely need more volunteers,” Dennis said.
The out-of-state lawyers that have been helping were recruited as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Their services will expire at the end of September. Thus, Dennis encourages more Texas attorneys to get involved in both the Pro Bono College and Texas Legal Answers, as a way to not only help someone, but also give back.
“I just wish that more lawyers would take advantage of the opportunities to assist and join the Pro Bono College and become involved with Texas Legal Answers,” said Dennis.
“It doesn’t cost anything to be a member of the Pro Bono College,” he said. “It just requires that you do a minimum of 75 hours a year in pro bono work, and that’s kind of a standard that has been set as a goal for all lawyers in Texas.
“Of course, I understand full well how it affects small law firms and solo practitioners to do pro bono work. It takes a whole lot more away from people at those situations than it does lawyers who work for large firms. But that’s ok,” he said.
The reward of knowing someone was helped is fulfilling.
“For me, it’s just knowing that you’re able to help someone because people need help,” Dennis said. “It’s constant. It doesn’t slow down.”
“It’s just a convenient way to do pro bono, more so,” he said.