Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2006

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Coe Recognized with 2006 ABA Pro Bono Publico Award

For Ward B. Coe, III, pro bono service has been a priority since his first day at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, LLP, nearly 30 years ago.

"I've had at least one pro bono case at all times since my first week of employment at this firm," notes Coe, a partner and litigator in the firm's Baltimore office. "It [offers] the same satisfaction you get with your other clients: you know you're helping them work through what can be the arcana of the legal world, and in doing that you make [the system] work better."

And it was such long-standing devotion to making the delivery of quality legal services work for those who most need them that prompted the American Bar Association (ABA) to honor Coe with its 2006 Pro Bono Publico Award on August 7 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii.

"I consider it a great compliment," says Coe. "It's also something that I think is an affirmation of this firm's culture with respect to promoting pro bono work. For years, we've had regular pro bono clients that provide us work, like the House of Ruth and the Maryland Disability Law Center. We treat them like regular clients and have lawyers here [who] are responsible for [maintaining] the relationship and getting cases and getting them handled."


Justice only
really works
If you have
a lawyer

Ward B. Coe, III

"I joined the firm in 1977, partly because it had a reputation for promoting pro bono work," he continues. "When I first came here, Nevett Steele was a partner, and he was in the office next to [mine]. He got me involved in a pro bono case the first day. [He] suggested that I get on the referral panel for Legal Aid right away, which I did, and I got a [pro bono] client right away."

In 1986, Steele persuaded Coe to get involved in L.J. vs. Massinga, a class-action suit filed on behalf of the children in Baltimore City's ailing foster care system. "I've always been interested in children's issues," notes Coe. "[The case] resulted in a preliminary injunction and, eventually, a consent decree. The preliminary injunction was affirmed by the circuit. I wound up being [named] trustee for the named plaintiffs, all of [whom] got some damage award. I've been their pro bono trustee and legal advisor since 1988, when the case was settled."

"The foster care case was a critical case because that's a really disenfranchised population, and they really needed the federal court to step in and do something about the situation," adds Coe.

Through the years, Coe himself has been instrumental in fostering Whiteford, Taylor & Preston's pro bono policies, including the designation of a partner to oversee the firm's delivery of such services.

"I think it's something that's catching on – an increased recognition of the professional responsibility," says Coe. "Also, with the restrictions on funds that are provided to legal service providers over the years – it's really become apparent that if the private bar doesn't step up and do some of the major litigation, the restrictions are going to prevent that litigation from being brought."

On a broader scale, Coe has served as Chair of the Maryland Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Pro Bono Service as well as a member of the Maryland Judicial Commission on Pro Bono. As such, he also stresses the significance of the judiciary's role in nurturing a robust pro bono culture.

"I think Maryland is way ahead [of other states]; in particular parts of the state, there is a really strong tradition that's existed for a long time," he explains. "[In] the jurisdictions that really lead the way in pro bono in the state, judges are involved. Also, we have a chief judge of the Court of Appeals who is a true leader in the pro bono field, and he always has been. And that's what is needed: leadership."

But Coe emphasizes that there remain many challenges ahead. "For instance, in Maryland there is a very poor migrant worker population that is growing, and it really needs legal services," he says. "And there's a challenge, because the people who want to serve them also may have to have language qualifications. Those are the kinds of challenges that are constantly facing the legal system."

To help broaden the field of pro bono service providers, Coe encourages pursuing previously-untapped resources, such as public-sector attorneys. "Government-employed lawyers have traditionally been afraid of conflicts and other things in doing pro bono work, but the Attorney General's Office, the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, the Public Defender's Office – they permit their lawyers to do pro bono work. They encourage it, and they can find work that [does not present] a conflict."

Coe also urges overcoming other long-held misconceptions in the legal community. "One [misconception] is that you can't do something outside of what you view as your area of expertise," he says. "Another is [that] it's a big administrative hassle to take a client in and find out what their real needs are and whether you can address them, and whether they really qualify for pro bono work, because we have organizations out there who do that for you. They make it easy."

"Justice only really works if you have a lawyer. It's one thing to say that anybody can go to court, [that] that's access to justice. But true access to justice means you have a lawyer who's good and can represent you just as well as the other guy can represent the client you're opposing. Otherwise, you don't have real access to justice."

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2006

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