Allure of pro bono work is contagious at Fort Worth law firm

Billy Ray, 59, needed a divorce, but he had no money for a lawyer and he can't read or write.

Nevertheless, the attorney who represented him was from one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in Tarrant County: Cantey Hanger. Over its more than 125 years, the firm has counted Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, local utilities and other institutions among its clients.

About a year ago, a judge asked Billy Ray, a former Fort Worth city employee, some questions and then granted the divorce. To protect his privacy, the Star-Telegram isn't fully identifying him.

"I don't think I could have done any better if I had went and hired me a lawyer," he said. "I doubt I could, because they were so nice."

His attorney from Cantey Hanger, Philip Vickers, worked the case pro bono after volunteering for the Fort Worth branch of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, which helps the poor in legal disputes.

Vickers' enthusiasm for helping out -- he finished one case, then took on another without hesitation -- was contagious. Now, 16 Cantey Hanger attorneys have agreed to accept at least two pro bono cases each from Legal Aid -- the largest such partnership in the nonprofit's 59-year history.

The attorneys will work cases in Tarrant, Erath, Hood, Johnson, Palo Pinto, Parker and Somervell counties.

"I was looking for an opportunity to do something to help folks and thinking, 'Well, this is a unique way that lawyers can help folks that are underserved by the legal community ordinarily because of lack of money,'" Vickers said. "And of course Legal Aid was the ideal place to go to look for those opportunities."

The partnership continues a dramatic turnaround for an organization that, like many Legal Aid programs in the state, was on the brink of disaster a year ago when funding dried up.

Legal services that assist the poor depend on interest generated on money in lawyers' trust accounts -- a program administered by the Access to Justice Foundation. Because interest rates plummeted, proceeds dropped to roughly $1.5 million last year, compared with $20 million in 2007.

While that money dried up, significant funding from the federal Legal Services Corp. put Legal Aid NorthWest in the position to hire new staff attorneys, said Errol Summerlin, executive director. However, the staff attorneys cannot come close to filling the need for legal services.

"We get 500 to 600 calls a day," said Ellena Simmons, the Equal Justice Volunteer Program coordinator for Legal Aid NorthWest in Fort Worth. "Staff attorneys can only take so many cases, so we depend on volunteers to come pick up the slack."

The volunteer program uses anyone -- from lay volunteers to paralegals and attorneys to judges -- willing to work pro bono, Simmons said.

Cantey Hanger associates will handle divorce, custody and child support cases for the organization, Simmons said.

"This is huge for us," she said. "Because even some of the attorneys that contact us, a lot of them really don't want to do family law, and that's about 80 percent of our cases."

One minor hurdle is that many of Cantey Hanger's volunteers don't have expertise in family law.

That included Vickers, who handles commercial litigation such as business disputes, contracts and intellectual property. His cases have involved businesses such as Yahoo and Bank of America in his 21/2 years with Cantey Hanger.

"Most associates taking pro bono cases ... don't have any [family law] experience prior to taking these, but we've got lots of support," he said.

Associates are being supervised by Cantey Hanger attorneys experienced in family law and are receiving assistance from the Legal Aid staff.

The partnership provides an important community service, John Johndroe III, a partner at Cantey Hanger, said in a statement.

"It occurred to me that Cantey Hanger might be able to provide free and necessary legal assistance to those less fortunate than we are while, at the same time, giving our younger lawyers experience in representing people of diverse backgrounds in court," he said. "So far, Cantey Hanger is very pleased with this program."

Vickers said that family law can be complicated and that in a divorce involving children, it's important to have provisions in place "to protect the children. It's something that needs to be done."

He said he has enjoyed meeting the clients and working on the cases.

"It was great," he said. "They really do need help. And they have real issues."

But he's most hopeful that other law firms will become interested in helping out.

"There's a large number of cases they can't handle because they don't have the capacity," he said. "So it's an opportunity for us in the legal community to get involved and use the training we had and help some folks out."

DARREN BARBEE, 817-390-7126