Hardy Wolf & Downing 1967 Commitment to Justice Award 2018 - L-R: William C. Herbert III, Michael Welch, Cailley Bonti, Sheldon Tepler, Christian Lewis, Leana Amaez, Stacy Stitham, Nan Heald. Photo by Nicole Pelonzi
Pine Tree Legal Assistance honored Lewiston-based law firm Hardy, Wolf, and Downing and one of its partners, Sheldon Tepler, Esq., at an event in Lewiston, Maine.
When Pine Tree Legal Assistance first opened its doors in 1967, it was a result of hard work by many private attorneys in Maine who had recognized that poor people in Maine were being excluded from the American promise of “justice for all.” For the past 51 years, Pine Tree has operated in partnership with Maine law firms and lawyers around the state to level the playing field for low-income individuals and to help move Maine closer to the promise of justice for all.
On the evening of October 23, 2018, at a reception in Lewiston, Pine Tree presented two awards to local heroes: Board President Stacy Stitham presented the “1967 Commitment to Justice Award” to Hardy, Wolf, and Downing and Executive Director Nan Heald presented Pine Tree’s individual “Pro Bono Award” to firm partner Sheldon Tepler, Esq.
The “1967 Commitment to Justice Award” was created to recognize a law firm, agency or organization that has made an extraordinary contribution to the legal needs of a specific client community or to address a particular legal challenge.
This year’s award celebrates an historic milestone in pro bono service: the 2017 decision of the firm to create a new full-time associate position with the understanding that the attorney will spend 50 percent of their time on pro bono work in partnership with the Lewiston office of Pine Tree Legal Assistance.
The attorney’s salary and benefits will be paid by the firm, but half of their time will be spent at Pine Tree. Attorney Cailley Bonti, a 2017 graduate of Maine Law, has been hired to serve in this unique role. At Hardy, Wolf & Downing, she will be learning the ropes of personal injury litigation from an amazing team of attorneys. At Pine Tree, she will be initially focused on a wide range of complex public benefits cases, many requiring administrative hearings to secure or retain a needed benefit.
“To our knowledge, this is the first such program to launch in a Maine law firm and may also be unique on a national level,” said Nan Heald, executive Director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance. “We can’t imagine a more worthy recipient of our 1967 Commitment to Justice Award than the law firm of Hardy, Wolf & Downing.”
Sheldon Tepler Pro Bono Award and 2018 10 24.jpg L-R: Cailley Bonti, Sheldon Tepler. Photo by Nicole Pelonzi
Pine Tree Legal Assistance also recognized attorney Sheldon Tepler, a partner at Hardy, Wolf & Downing, with its annual award to an individual for exceptional pro bono service. This year’s award recognizes his career-long dedication to pro bono work and advocacy to expand justice for all low-income Mainers.
In the 1990’s, Sheldon helped Pine Tree establish its credentials as a community partner agency with United Way of Androscoggin County; in the early 2000’s, his experience at New Beginnings helped inform Pine Tree’s development of Kids Legal as a statewide legal resource for low-income children and youth.
For more than a decade, Sheldon has also volunteered as a ‘lawyer of the day’ for low-income individuals facing eviction during the bimonthly docket calls at the Lewiston District Court, working on their behalf to enforce legal protections and prevent homelessness.
This work is especially important given the high rate of eviction in Lewiston. According to the Eviction Lab Project at Princeton University, Lewiston Maine has an eviction rate of 4.79 percent, significantly higher than Maine’s overall eviction rate of 2.26 percent.
A study in Massachusetts by the Boston Bar Association demonstrates that “extensive assistance from lawyers is essential to helping tenants preserve their housing and avoid the potential for homelessness, including all of the far-reaching tangible and intangible costs to tenants and society generally that are associated with homelessness.”
Research shows that tenants facing eviction are more likely to avoid homelessness as a result of legal assistance, saving thousands or tens of thousands of public dollars in shelter costs for each eviction averted.
In addition to his own pro bono work throughout his career, Sheldon is the architect of the firm’s new experiment in pro bono.
“There are few opportunities for public recognition of the essential support provided to Pine Tree Legal Assistance’s clients by other groups and individuals, but the American Bar Association has designated this week as a National Celebration of Pro Bono. We had to showcase the incredible contributions of Hardy, Wolf & Downing and its partner Sheldon Tepler as part of that national effort, knowing that this Maine law firm and its staff stand out on both a statewide and national level,” said Ms. Heald.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance is non-profit law firm whose mission is to ensure that state and federal laws affecting poor people are upheld, while also addressing the systemic barriers to justice faced by Mainers with low incomes. Last year, Pine Tree Legal celebrated its 50th anniversary as Maine’s oldest and largest civil legal aid provider.