The access-to-justice gap in Texas is among the widest in the nation.
A recent University of Texas-San Antonio study found that the state’s legal aid organizations are able to help only 10 percent of low-income Texans. TRLA reports that there are 15,000 Texans eligible for aid for every one TRLA lawyer. Though the justice gap is still glaring, pro bono attorneys help fill it. In the past year, nearly 950 pro bono attorneys from across the state have worked with TRLA, representing nearly 1650 clients in family, housing, consumer, sexual assault, and employment discrimination cases, among others. “Pro bono attorneys are instrumental to our work providing legal representation to people who otherwise would not have it,” says Pablo Almaguer, attorney and coordinator for TRLA’s Private Attorney Involvement program.
As part of this year’s Oct. 23-29 national Celebrate Pro Bono week, TRLA would like to extend thanks to all of its volunteer attorneys.
For Priscilla de Mata, an attorney with Blanco Ordoñez Mata & Wallace in El Paso, pro bono cases have been among the most meaningful of her career. She’s worked with Mixteco farmworkers and Central American women and children. She’s represented low-income clients during eviction proceedings and, currently, the El Paso/Las Cruces March of Dimes organization, where she is a board member and general counsel.
“Pro bono work is important to me and should be for all fellow attorneys, because justice would otherwise be inaccessible to a large segment of our population — women, children, elderly, homeless, and people experiencing financial hardship,” de Mata says. “Pro bono volunteers collectively shape and improve the American judicial system with each case or project they undertake. Without pro bono volunteers, justice would prove impossible to attain for most people worldwide.”
A first-generation American, de Mata graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso, where she was a member of the Chicano/a Pre-Law Society. At the University of Idaho College of Law, she was the first Mexican-American elected to lead the critical legal studies journal as its editor-in-chief. During the summer of 2012, she interned with TRLA, where she assisted in legal representation for at-risk communities. After contributing more than 250 hours of pro bono legal services in Texas and Idaho, she earned her law school’s “Pro Bono Service with Distinction.”
De Mata says of her work with TRLA: “I represented low-income tenants during eviction proceedings and helped staff attorneys with English-to-Spanish translations and case intake. I provided legal research for cases ranging from lack of water access and other infrastructure in colonias to discriminatory practices within a certain government agency.”
Jami Nance, a San Antonio attorney who graduated from St. Mary’s School of Law, was inspired by the lawyers who helped her escape from an abusive relationship. “I received help through the Women’s Advocacy Project to escape the relationship and get a divorce,” she says. “It was through the attorneys involved in my case that I decided to go back to school to get my degree and then on to law school. After graduation, I opened my own family law practice to work with other women and children who otherwise could not receive my services.”
Nance has received various honors for pro bono work, among them the AT&T excellence in Pro Bono Scholarship, St. Mary’s School of Law Pro Bono certificate, the Adel advocate for the poor award, and the Texas Access to Justice Commission certificate of outstanding achievement. Earlier this year, she was among several attorneys honored for their pro bono work with Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault, a new TRLA program with funding from Texas Access to Justice Foundation. “Pro bono work is my way of saying thank you and honoring those who helped me get where I am today.”
“Pro bono service is important to me, because I cannot stand to see people be used or lose just because they do not have money,” says Kimbel Ward-Neal, who graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and St Mary’s School of Law. At the latter, she helped lead the school’s “Ask a Laywer Clinic” and was honored for her pro bono service upon graduation. The mother of two children, she has been practicing for five years, becoming particularly dedicated to criminal law. She was also among those who were honored earlier this year for their volunteer work with LASSA. “The justice system favors those with money, and I would like to see justice favored over money,” she says. “Money is a possession but the destruction of our rights is a systemic problem that threatens us all. I try to help as many people as possible.”