The legal profession, to the surprise of no one, gets more than its fair share of bad publicity.
Lawyers are maligned for a variety of reasons, and when one of us gets in trouble, the media and the public at large are quick to pile on.
What you don’t hear much about, however, are lawyers doing good—and I’m not simply talking about the good that comes as part of doing their job—like laboring for years to win exoneration for a wrongly convicted person, or winning an environmental case that makes our water safer to drink or our air easier to breathe.
Instead, I’m talking about the lawyers who go above and beyond the call of duty, lawyers who are everyday heroes.
Some are heroes in the literal sense, like state district court judge Sheri Raphaelson of Rio Arriba County, N.M. On Feb. 4, Judge Raphaelson and her court bailiff Jeff Martinez were carpooling to work that snowy morning when they came upon a crash scene on the highway. A truck driven by Isaac Martinez’s mother had skidded off U.S. 84, and Martinez himself was injured.
Judge Raphaelson pulled over to help; it so happened that she was also a trained EMT and certified midwife who—just that past Christmas—had been on a volunteer trip to Haiti to help deliver babies. The stethoscope-carrying judge administered first aid for an hour until an ambulance could arrive.
One of the other passersby went to get help, since the area had no cellphone coverage. Others, including at least three defendants headed to Judge Raphaelson’s court, held a makeshift tarp over the scene to keep away the falling snow.
Martinez was ultimately airlifted to a hospital in Santa Fe, where he was treated and released.
As for Judge Raphaelson, she continued on to the courthouse, where she changed out of her bloody clothes before convening court. As she glanced down her docket sheet, she saw a familiar name: Isaac Martinez, the man she had played Good Samaritan to earlier that morning.
Not every lawyer’s good deed has as immediate an impact as Judge Sheri Raphaelson’s emergency treatment.
Austin solo practitioner Jim Freeman recently left his fulltime law practice to start Conviction Yoga, a nonprofit that promotes the teaching of yoga to Texas prison inmates.
Three days a week, Freeman drives to prisons all over the state, sometimes visiting three correctional facilities a day. There he teaches inmates yoga and meditation techniques, hoping to help them release the traumas that led them to lead a life of crime and reconnect with their feelings.
Freeman says, “the people I want to help are the people who have been thrown away, the ones that are in there forever . . . I want them to cultivate the ability to have compassion.”
Waco attorney Kent McKeever also wants to raise awareness about the incarcerated and the challenges faced by those struggling to return to society after prison.
So this past Lent, for 40 days, McKeever went beyond the little exercises in self-denial like giving up sweets or smoking. Instead, the youth minister and Mission Waco legal advocate decided to wear orange jailhouse scrubs each day to show solidarity with and raise public consciousness of both currently imprisoned and returning ex-convicts.
The Baylor and Vanderbilt Law grad, who earned a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary before attending law school, had spent about a decade working with the poor and dispossessed before returning to Waco in 2012 and creating (and fundraising for) the legal advocate position he now holds.
His Lenten wearing of orange has gotten him some strange looks during family outings to the movies and even at work at Mission Waco’s Meyer Center. But for McKeever, it’s been worth it, as he’s jumpstarted discussions about the failures of the criminal justice and immigration detention systems and even blogged about his experiences at 40daysinorange.wordpress.com.
His very public Lenten sacrifice, he says, has hopefully made communities think about offering a second chance to those who have already served time.
As McKeever puts it, “God loves these prisoners. We should challenge and confront our subconscious stigmatization of this population.”
While it may not involve donning prison garb, no one can accuse Chicago attorney Daniel Cotter of not doing the heavy lifting when it comes to charitable work—literally.
Since 2002, the lawyer and competitive powerlifter has been using his weightlifting to raise money for mentoring programs benefiting the city’s disadvantaged youth. Cotter started “Lifting to Lend-A-Hand,” an initiative that works much like a walkathon.
Cotter is competing in a powerlifting meet on July 19, and is seeking donors to pledge a set amount per pound for the total number of pounds he lifts as his “best” in each of three categories—the squat, the bench, and the deadlift.
Cotter expects to lift between 1400 and 1500 pounds total, so a donor pledging 10 cents per pound would owe $150 if he lifts 1500 pounds with his best lifts in all three types.
All the money that Cotter raises goes to Chicago Sun-Times/Judge Marovitz Lawyers Lend-A-Hand to Youth, which promotes mentoring programs in at-risk and disadvantaged communities; since its inception in 1995, Lawyers Lend-A-Hand to Youth has awarded over $1.5 million in grants and impacted tens of thousands of young people.
Cotter himself raised $2,600 with his first powerlifting fundraiser in 2002, and the tally has steadily climbed over the years; this year, Cotter hopes that his sweating and exertion will net $100,000 for the charity (the equivalent of an entire year of grants from the organization).
Cotter, who is about to take office as president of the Chicago Bar Association, says the goal couldn’t be more important.
“Mentoring is a foundation of our nation’s successful future and we need to help ensure the vitality of mentoring programs in Chicago and beyond,” he says.
(Those interested in contributing can email Cotter at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Whether it’s in an emergency, raising awareness of those that society has forgotten about in prison, or literally doing the heavy lifting for a worthy cause, lawyers are doing good every day whether you see them or not.
In the second part of this column, we’ll examine some lawyers who devoted their time and energy to righting some past wrongs.