A century and counting

By Christine L. Mobley

Legal News

In the span of a century, Legal Aid and Defender Association (LAD) can claim it has experienced and witnessed historical phenomena such as the Great Depression, two World Wars, the man on the moon, the civil rights movement, the nation's first black president and a host of other historical events all while serving the greater good.

It was in this spirit of historical recognition that LAD culminated its centennial year with its 100th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, Nov. 6, at Ford Field in Detroit.

The organization, founded in 1909 by the Detroit Bar, was initially named the Legal Aid Society and was established to provide free legal services to the city's poor, especially new immigrants from Europe and the South.

Through the years and a couple of different name changes, LAD has become Michigan's oldest and largest provider of free civil legal services to low-income people serving metropolitan Detroit through its offices in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

Besides civil matters, LAD also represents criminal defendants in Wayne County and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

In conjunction with its 100th Anniversary Celebration, LAD presented its 2009 Pro Bono Service Awards and its new Frank D. Eaman Warrior of Justice and the Ed Pokorny Pioneer of Justice awards.

Among the Pro Bono Service Awards recipients were:

* Attorney of the Year - Michelle Thomas of Bodman LLP.

* Corporate Counsel of the Year - General Motors Corp.

* Law Firm of the Year - Dykema Gossett PLLC.

The Eaman Award was presented to James Neuhard, director of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office, for his work in promoting change and improvement in the legal system at all levels of government, the organized bar and within the legal aid and public defense communities.

U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr. was presented with the Ed Pokorny Pioneer of Justice award for advancing voting rights, combating violence against women, protecting whistleblowers, seeking fair wages for women and minorities, and his lifelong participation in the civil rights movement.

Among the more than 300 guests and dignitaries at the event were U.S. Senator Carl Levin who was the first deputy defender of LAD's State Defender Office where he represented indigent defendants in Detroit Recorder's Court during the city's unrest in the summer of 1967.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly was also on hand for the evening and spoke at the event.

Reflecting on LAD's many accomplishment she noted the creation of the Internal Management Institute and an all-technology paperless case management system; the development of a mentoring program for all LAD staff; LAD's expansion of service into Macomb and Oakland counties under a state reorganization plan in 2000; the purchase of LAD's current headquarters located in downtown Detroit; the opening of a full-time Fair Housing Center serving Macomb and Oakland counties; and LAD's partnership with Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak to operate a Legal Aid for Children clinic.

"The last 100 years have been filled with an equal number of both challenges and opportunities for this organization," Kelly said of LAD. "It is greatly to LAD's credit that it has faced these challenges head on and utilized every opportunity to extend its mission to serve the poor and unrepresented in our region."

Kelly concluded with saying, "We can rely on LAD and our many dedicated partnerships in this community to find creative and new approaches, energetic new allies and new funding sources in order to provide poor people the information and assistance they need to address their legal problems and promote their legal interests."

"We have come a long way since 1909," Arthur Dudley II, LAD Board of Directors chairman, noted. "Today, we are the largest provider of legal services to the poor in Michigan and among the largest public law firms in the nation...As Metro Detroit's public law firm, we served some 13,000 needy clients in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties in the past year alone."

"The significance of our centennial hit me about a year ago when talking with colleagues around the country who have celebrated centennials," Deierdre L. Weir, LAD president and CEO, said. "It was then that I realized that not many organizations have been around as long as we have and it's really a big deal.

"Through the years we have become stronger, adding skills and expertise to in the practice of law both inside courtrooms and in the halls of government where clients need our help."

Published: Tue, Nov 24, 2009