United States: "Lawyers have a responsibility to [serve] people who can
Last Updated: April 10 2003

Ask Scott Atlas about representing indigents in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, being honored with many awards, including the Mexican Bar Association of Texas' 1996 Lawyer of the Year, the Houston Bar Association president's Award in 1999, and the 2002 Karen Susman Juris Prudence Award from the Anti-Defamation League, or about being listed in Who's Who in America dozens of times, and he will heap kudos on the firm where he is a partner - Vinson & Elkins, L.L.P.

"The thing that's always troubled me about pro bono work is that lawyers get more credit than we deserve," Atlas said.

That is why the native Texan is quick to point out that law firms actually deserve most of the credit for taking care of people who cannot afford legal counsel.

"I continue to get paid," Atlas explains, "but my firm does everything it can to provide pro bono work and make civic commitments."

The firm credits its attorneys full billable hours for free legal work. Vinson & Elkins' policy goes back to its founding, and other law firms have since followed suit.

Because Atlas saw a need for a more efficient way to match lawyers up with people who could not afford legal counsel, he founded the Fifth Circuit Texas Appointment Plan.

Started in 1982, the Texas Appointment plan enlists the help of about 150 law firms around the state, all of which agree to donate attorney time for pro bono cases in the Fifth Circuit.

The program evolved, he says, from his early days at Vinson & Elkins in the late '70s. Fresh from a clerkship with the Fifth Circuit, he knew of a judge who needed an attorney to represent a client for free. Atlas started asking attorneys in his office if they would be interested in taking such cases. When they agreed, Atlas decided to serve as a go-between, ensuring that attorneys would never have to say "no" directly to a judge. And so the system for the Appointment Plan was in place.

Through this, one of the more high-profile pro bono cases Atlas has worked on is Guerra V. Collins, in which an undocumented Mexican worker was convicted of killing a Houston police officer, and was facing death row.

The man was convicted in 1982, but Atlas didn't pick up the case until 1992, when it was in the Fifth Circuit. He became convinced of Guerra's innocence and spent the next four years appealing the case to the U. S. Supreme Court. Finally, he said, the district attorney dropped all of the charges (because there was evidence of police misconduct, witness intimidation, and false evidence), and his client returned to Monterrey, Mexico.

"Our firm spent literally millions of dollars working on it," Atlas said of the case which garnered enormous media attention.

As a result, attorneys throughout the state began volunteering for other cases in the Fifth Circuit.

"Lawyers have a responsibility to provide pro bono legal services to people who can't afford counsel," Atlas said. "I don't see anything unusual about that."

But more than starting up the Texas Appointment Plan, being chair of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project for more than 12 years (he is stepping down in June), a national clearinghouse for pro bono work, being on the board of the Alliance for Judicial Funding, or even being the chair of the Litigation Section of the American Bar Association, Atlas serves Houston's art community as well. Atlas is the general counsel to Houston's Alley Theatre.

"Scott is an angel for the Alley Theatre," said Paul Tetreault, managing director of the Alley Theatre. "For the past 15 or 20 years, he's been involved in any kind of legal issues we're involved in."

Even so, Atlas has a hard time accepting praise for any contributions he has made to his community or the legal profession.
"Very few law firms would spend that kind of time working on something like (Guerra v. Collins)," Atlas said. "It's really because of the firm that people like me are able to make that commitment.

The firm believes it's an obligation that lawyers have.

"We've been very fortunate in having a firm that has flourished," he added, "and we have a responsibility to give something back."



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