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Dedicated to service: Get to know the NJSBA Pro Bono Award winners for 2022
On Feb. 15, 2023 the NJSBA recognized 20 individuals across six award categories for their outstanding commitment to providing pro bono legal services to New Jersey’s underserved residents. The ceremony was held at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick.
REBECCA SPAR received the Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing an attorney in practice for 25 years or more. A special education expert with a career spanning over three decades, Spar has provided pro bono services to scores of families, shaped legal doctrine and mentored numerous attorneys through Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ), a nonprofit that promotes access to justice for people experiencing poverty. Now retired, she dedicates her time to working with pro bono organizations and counseling less-experienced attorneys in special education law. Since retiring in 2018, she still dedicates 30 hours a week to undertaking pro bono activities.
What inspired you to practice in special education law?
After beginning law school in 1984, my focus on education gradually changed. During my third year, I handled a special education case in the Rutgers School of Law clinic. A parent, with the assistance of a lay advocate, had won an administrative hearing which required the school district to place her child in a private school. The school district filed an appeal in federal court and the advocate, who could not represent the student in federal court, asked and the clinic agreed to handle the appeal. I represented the parent in the appeal and dug into special education law. I succeeded in upholding the administrative decision and became hooked. I decided that after a few of years of litigation experience, I would try to integrate special education cases as a part of my practice. I never dreamed that I would be able to turn it into a full-time practice.
As the parent of a child with a disability, how has that experience shaped your pro bono advocacy?
I understand what parents are going through because I’ve been there myself. I’ve seen firsthand the impact that ADHD or a learning disability has on a student when trying to do homework after a long day of school. I have seen the difference an effective teacher or resource room instructor who is involved and works with the parent can make versus an ineffective teacher. I’ve also seen the educational limits of private schools. They are not always the panacea for students with special needs. Every disability and every child is different, but parents know that I am not only speaking as a lawyer, but also as someone who has had experiences similar to theirs.
Most attorneys would slow down after retiring, yet you still perform many hours of pro bono service a week. Why do you continue this work?
I like doing things that are meaningful and helpful to others, and I loved my special education involvement with the Education Law Center and VLJ. I considered doing some paid consultation when I retired from Cole Schotz, but decided that I wanted to focus on pro bono tasks without concern about compensation. I gain great satisfaction by knowing that I can help others to achieve, and at the same time know that their success continues to enrich my life.
GEOFFREY N. ROSAMOND received the Champion of Justice Award, presented to an individual attorney affiliated with a firm. Rosamond, a partner at McCarter & English, logged 168 hours of pro bono service in 2021 while serving 27 clients. He serves as chairman of McCarter & English’s Pro Bono Committee and is a member of VLJ’s Board of Trustees.
You’ve worked with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice for many years now. How did you become involved with the organization?
Shortly after I began working at McCarter & English in January 2000, I developed a criminal reentry/expungement program at the firm. I was able to recruit and train volunteer lawyers at McCarter to represent pro bono clients referred by Essex County College and The First Occupational Center of New Jersey, among others. The McCarter criminal reentry/expungement program was successful in helping a significant number of pro bono clients expunge their criminal records in the early 2000s.
What inspired you to dedicate much of your pro bono service to criminal expungements, and why do you believe that work is important?
Ensuring access to justice for individuals experiencing poverty is the most personally rewarding and fulfilling work I have been involved with in my 26 years as an attorney. My background and experience as a former prosecutor provided me with the tools needed to make a meaningful difference in the lives of my expungement clients and survivors of human trafficking during this time.
Expungements provide a second chance to individuals who have made mistakes in the past, and the ability to dramatically change their lives for the better. As a result of having their criminal backgrounds expunged, individuals can experience an increase in employment and educational opportunities, economic independence, housing stability and productive citizenship, while reducing recidivism and building safer communities. The same is also true when we are able to obtain a vacatur of human trafficking convictions for a survivor. That not only eliminates these barriers, but also allows a survivor to escape the stigma resulting from their victimization.
How are you able to balance pro bono service with your professional responsibilities?
Balancing my pro bono service with my professional responsibilities has been relatively easy for me for the past 20 years, as I view them as one and the same. To make a meaningful difference in the lives of others is the most fulfilling reward of being an attorney and member of New Jersey’s prestigious legal community.
REED SMITH LLP—Pillar of Justice Award
The Pillar of Justice Award recognizes significant and innovative pro bono contributions of law firms toward advancing access to justice. The award was presented to attorneys Melissa Geist, Julia Lopez and John McDonald of Reed Smith for their pro bono work including providing legal representation to immigrant children, performing closings for families in affordable housing, among other projects. The three attorneys offered their perspective on pro bono work.
Why is it important for law firms—especially international firms like Reed Smith—to perform pro bono services?
Our pro bono work represents our firm’s values in action and is part of our mission as a progressive global law firm. We are proud that the firm’s pro bono practice continues to grow and make up a critical part of the firm’s response to major business and legal events. It is important for us as a law firm to be an active member of our society. In Princeton, two of our attorneys—who are immigrants themselves—recognized from their personal experience how they could make an impact on their client’s lives and families through their work with Kids In Need of Defense. Indeed, there is nothing more rewarding than helping a client have a real opportunity at achieving the American Dream. In 2022, Reed Smith devoted over 92,000 pro bono hours firmwide supporting communities and people in need—our highest total number of hours in the firm’s history.
How do Reed Smith attorneys balance pro bono work with their professional responsibilities?
The importance we place on pro bono work is reflected in the firm’s policy, where up to 140 hours of pro bono time per year counts towards lawyers’ chargeable targets. Pro bono is also one way in which we develop our relationships with our in-house counsel clients. We partner with our fee-earning clients on pro bono work to increase capacity and offer more support to our pro bono clients.
MERCK & CO., INC.—Mark Daniel Excellence in Pro Bono Award
The Mark Daniel Award recognizes exemplary pro bono efforts of corporate legal departments. In the last year, Merck’s legal department worked with 30 different organizations on pro bono projects. Five attorneys with Merck were honored. They are: Mark Benevenia and Vance Camisa, who assisted with the annual lease negotiations for a Polish supplementary school; Michelle M. D’Agostino and Scott Kauffman, who worked with the Hope House to offer a wide array of programs to the elderly, disabled and people with AIDS or substance abuse issues; and Jeff Gruen, who has educated nonprofits on New Jersey’s sick leave law. The award follows the tradition set by the late Mark Daniel, who helped found Merck’s corporate pro bono program in 1994. He was also influential in championing pro bono causes as a longtime member of the NJSBA’s Pro Bono Committee.
How has Merck’s pro bono practice grown over the years?
The Merck Pro Bono program started in 1994 with a core group of seven patent attorneys and four administrative associates in the patent department. Merck’s pro bono program has grown globally to include more than 120 attorneys, paralegals and other staff across all levels of the organization, who in the last two years provided approximately 4,600 hours of pro bono legal services.
Why is it important for corporate legal departments to perform pro bono services?
Merck believes that providing pro bono services is our responsibility as a good corporate citizen. Committing our legal skills to help the communities in which we live and operate is consistent with our company’s mission: to ensure that every life is treated with dignity and respect by doing what we can to improve human lives and reduce human suffering. The nonprofit organizations we collaborate with through the Merck Pro Bono Program provide vital services to our communities, which would not be available without the partnership of corporate law departments like ours. We work to support our attorneys and staff to ensure they can successfully focus on both pro bono activities and professional responsibilities. We know that people do their best work when they are part of a committed and supportive team. One way our volunteers balance pro bono work with their Merck responsibilities is by partnering with another Merck attorney or staff member to share the workload.
DILLON J. MCGUIRE – Distinguished New Lawyer Pro Bono Award
The Distinguished Attorney Award recognizes an attorney in practice for 10 years or fewer. McGuire specializes in criminal defense and government and internal investigations with Pashman Stein Walder Hayden. In 2021, he argued before the state Supreme Court on behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys – New Jersey on a pro bono basis in multiple cases involving the constitutionality of life sentences for juvenile defendants.
What do you find most rewarding about pro bono advocacy, especially in the criminal defense space?
After my judicial clerkships, it was very important to me to land at a law firm with a dedication to public interest work. When I heard about Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, and the Justice Gary S. Stein Public Interest Center, it immediately caught my attention. I think what I enjoy most about pro bono advocacy in the criminal arena is that our involvement in high impact litigation before the Appellate Division and Supreme Court can make an immediate difference in the lives of New Jersey residents. Far too often, defendants’ constitutional rights are cast aside by investigating officers, yet these officers routinely receive the benefit of the doubt from trial judges. In appropriate cases, our role as amici provides critical support for defense counsel and assists the Court in determining some of the broader policy implications of a particular case.
Why do you believe it’s important for young attorneys like yourself to take on pro bono work?
It’s extremely important for young attorneys to be involved in pro bono work. For me, pro bono assignments through the Justice Gary S. Stein Public Interest Center provided me with two invaluable opportunities. First, fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves is what attracted me to the practice of law in the first place. This is especially true in the criminal context, as an individual charged with a crime must defend him/herself against the seemingly unlimited resources of the state. The opportunity to represent defendants as designated counsel for the Office of the Public Defender in direct appeals has been particularly rewarding for me, as it allows more personal interaction with the defendants themselves. Second, pro bono work allowed me to get into court almost immediately and sharpen my oral and written advocacy skills while arguing as amicus.
How are you able to balance pro bono service with your professional responsibilities?
Finding a balance between pro bono work and billable work has been a challenge, but having the unwavering support of our managing partner Mike Stein, and the guidance of CJ Griffin, has made it a pleasure to take on these pro bono matters. I am also fortunate that our firm credits us for up to 150 pro bono hours a year toward our billable hours. While there have certainly been times where I had to come in early or stay late to finish pro bono briefs, or prepare for argument, I have never felt that I was shirking responsibilities to firm clients by taking on pro bono matters. In my opinion, there is always time to help people, it’s just a matter of wanting to do so.
SETON HALL LAW STUDENT TEAMS – Outstanding Law Student Pro Bono Awards
This award recognizes an individual law student or students who excelled in supporting pro bono or legal aid programs for underserved communities. A group of nine current and former Seton Hall Law students received the award for developing a series of informational videos for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, who represented themselves in restraining order hearings. The recipients are Erin N. Romano, Sarah Souaid, Mallory E. Garvin, Emre Tutuncu, Kaitlin R. Principato, Jaden W. Jackson, Brian M. Smith, Kiah B. Murphy and Alexis Mitchell.
What interested you in performing pro bono service while still a law student?
I had the lifetime honor of being a student in the Leadership Fellows Program for the Class of 2022. This pro bono program was established and has since been led every year by Professor Paula Franzese, a person nationally recognized for her legal eminence in housing justice and her passion for inspiring servant leadership in her students. Professor Franzese always told us, “There’s a force that meets good with good,” and advised us not to wait for someone else to do good, but to ourselves be the person that meets every problem with a viable solution. This encompasses the way she meets the Fellows’ desire to help with the direct tools, guidance and contacts to make it happen.
The Leadership Fellows Program encouraged us to seek out needs in our community and use our unique position as law students to provide relief. Our final projects included pro bono services ranging from a coat drive to the video advocacy project for survivors of domestic abuse in obtaining necessary protection. We all leaned into the program and inspired change that will continue to inspire change.
– Alexis Mitchell
How has the experience helped prepare you for a career in the law?
As anticipated, a project of this magnitude presented a multitude of challenges that cultivated a greater understanding of collaboration and leadership. Learning how to effectively work with classmates, professors, legal professionals and budding William Paterson filmmakers was a lesson in patience, communication and grace. Additionally, I have seen improvement in my organizational and management skills. I am more confident in my decision-making ability. Moreover, I have developed a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for others. Perhaps the greatest reward, however, was the bonds that I formed with my colleagues throughout this process.
– Jaden W. Jackson
NJSBA Pro Bono Task Force
The goal of the Pro Bono Task Force is to make recommendations that will encourage and expand pro bono participation by the private bar. Read the Task Force's report: Closing the Justice Gap - May 2012.
For more information on closing the justice gap, and New Jersey attorneys' pro bono obligations and opportunities, watch the video created by the New Jersey State Bar Association and New Jersey Judiciary.
Additional training videos for attorneys receiving pro bono assignments
Domestic Violence Contempt Matters
Municipal Court Appeals - June 2014
Legal Services of New Jersey
Click here to access the Legal Services of New Jersey website, for additional information about pro bono opportunities, legal services, training for pro bono when available, and regional legal service offices.
ABA Center for Pro Bono
Click here for the ABA Center for Pro Bono