2014 Presidents’ Award for Public Service: Avis Buchanan
For the last ten years, Avis E. Buchanan has been the director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia(PDS), which provides defense, and related legal and non-legal services, to indigent adults and children charged with crimes and delinquent acts in the local DC courts. PDS is widely regarded as one of the best public defender offices in the country, local or federal; Avis is the longest-serving director in PDS history. As director of PDS, Avis oversees an extensive range of cutting-edge legal and non-legal services aimed at providing the best possible representation to criminal defendants. PDS has a staff of 220, roughly half of whom are lawyers. PDS has seven legal units and, uncommonly, pulls from those to create practice groups that focus, for example, on forensics and mental health, two chief aspects of trial and sentence-mitigation work. Specialists not only assist in individual cases but push for reforms of local and federal policies and legislation. They also run training programs for lawyers, social workers, investigators, and others working on the front lines of DC justice. Indeed, PDS was set up as a model public defender organization, Avis says. “We give people a fighting chance, just as rich people have… We are helping people at a very crucial time in their lives. We are dealing with people facing scornful, judgmental attitudes.” PDS attorneys force the system to see people as human beings – not just criminals, or bodies moving through the system. Avis has worked to expand access to justice throughout her career, in both civil and criminal cases. After graduating from law school and clerking for a federal appellate judge, Avis joined PDS as a staff attorney in 1982. She represented criminal defendants for six and a half years, during the height of the crack epidemic in D.C. For the next 13 years, Avis served as a staff attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Project, and then director of litigation at Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. There, Avis litigated individual and class action civil rights cases across the country. After over a decade of litigating civil-rights cases, Avis returned to PDS in 2002, as deputy director, and then became its director in 2004. Avis, who grew up in Washington, DC and Prince George’s County, says that the struggle for civil rights has been a “running theme of my existence” and results directly from the influence of her father. Her parents’ values and her faith led her into public interest law and continue to guide her work. “The idea of helping people and doing for others is what I was taught at home and taught at church,” she said. And Avis continues to be active in her community: she sits on her church’s board of trustees, her former elementary school’s board, and on the board that runs the local Adventist Health Care system. She also sits on the board of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and on our own Honorary Board. Finally, Avis is a mentor to young people in a variety of settings. She has served as a mentor through the public interest program at Harvard Law School, and has volunteered to be a mentor at Georgetown Law. She also reaches out to younger people at church, and takes time to help young people who friends or colleagues send to her for advice. “I have them come down to the office, introduce them to attorneys and take them to do court-watching,” she says. “It demystifies the job, and shows them it is within their reach.” We’re not the first to notice Avis’s accomplishments. She has received the Wiley A. Branton Award from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the Edwin D. Wolf Award from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We’re pleased to join these organizations in honoring Avis’s many contributions to both civil and criminal justice.
2013 Presidents’ Award: Judith Sandalow (Children’s Law Center)
by Sara Safriet Judith Sandalow came to focus on children and the law after being a foster parent of two boys approximately 16 years ago; she later adopted them both. When Judith was approached by Children's Law Center, this experience allowed her to view the world from the perspective of her future clients. Before joining CLC, Judith graduated from Yale Law School and then returned to Washington, DC as a Juvenile Justice Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. After starting a juvenile clinic at DC Law Students in Court, Judith developed a successful criminal-defense practice specializing in representation of juveniles and adults charged with serious crimes. When she joined CLC in 2000, Judith had no previous experience with fundraising, organizational leadership, or recruiting and managing pro-bono attorneys. But her passion – to help the community that she herself was part of – led her to learn these skills. Indeed, her leadership and dedication have helped CLC expand from three people to a staff of over 80. CLC is now the largest nonprofit legal services provider in the District of Columbia. Approximately one-fifth of CLC's 2,000 cases each year are managed by pro-bono attorneys. Judith believes that it is not difficult to engage pro-bono attorneys in the District: many local attorneys have exhibited an extraordinary capacity to give their time, resources, and dedication to important causes. For those interested in or thinking about taking on a pro-bono case, Judith believes that there are many benefits to doing so with CLC: (1) helping the lawyers feel connected to their communities, (2) engaging with a part of the city that one does not often interact with, (3) putting the world in perspective and helping to stop sweating the small stuff in our lives, (4) learning more about a new area of law, and (5) breaking down stereotypes and educating one another – pro bono lawyers have an opportunity to see how smart, tenacious, inventive, and passionate the poorest of the District’s residents can be. We'd also be remiss if we didn't point out that Judith and her colleagues have worked actively with Washington Council of Lawyers. CLC lawyers have served as faculty at our litigation skills trainings, and CLC's current and former pro bono directors are members of our board. Last but not least, Judith has donated her time to the our mentor/mentee program.
2012 Presidents’ Award: Jim Sandman (Legal Services Corporation)
Jim Sandman began serving as President of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 2011 after practicing with Arnold & Porter for thirty years. Attorneys who have worked on pro bono projects alongside Sandman have described his “tireless efforts to bring together the resources of the public interest, private bar, pro bono, and government legal communities” to “improve the quality and availability of free legal services for low-income and marginalized clients.” During Jim's ten-year tenure as Arnold & Porter's Managing Partner, Arnold & Porter was recognized numerous times for its commitment to pro bono. The firm received the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico award and was honored a record number of times by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association for its commitment to diversity. One attorney at Arnold & Porter recalled that when “hours-based bonuses were suddenly adopted at law firms across America,” Sandman insisted that the firm count pro bono hours towards bonuses and campaigned publicly for other firms to adopt the same policy. In 2007, Jim was named General Counsel of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and he served in that position for three years. When the search began for a new President of Legal Services Corporation, attorneys familiar with Sandman knew he would be the “perfect candidate” for the job and would strive to “increase legal service resources on a national level for low-income clients throughout the country.” One of Jim's colleagues at LSC notes that her “sense of the place has been shaped by him and the imprint he has put on LSC’s work.” Another colleague observes, “[Jim] often talks about supporting those in the legal services community and the importance of increasing the visibility of the heroes of our bar. It is high time someone told him he is the hero!” Among his many other public service contributions, Sandman was a member of the D.C. Bar’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and the Legal Workplace, a Chair of the Pro Bono Initiative Working Group, and a past President of the D.C. bar. Jim currently chairs the D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Committee and serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Just this year, Jim helped us publish our 2012 Report of Legal Services Funding, which highlights the impact that cuts in funding for legal services have on the ability of programs to serve the poor. Jim has received the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Howard Lesnick Pro Bono Award and the Tahirih Justice Center’s Wings of Justice Award. In 2008, Legal Times named him one of the “90 Greatest Washington Lawyers of the Last Thirty Years.” Want to learn more? Attend next month's Awards Ceremony – featuring a keynote speech by State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh.