BANGOR, Maine — Getting an award for starting a legal aid clinic before it has lined up volunteer attorneys or found potential clients is a bit like giving the Wright brothers an aviation award before the plane takes off, the winner of the 2009 Lew Vafiades Pro Bono Award said Wednesday.
Bangor lawyer Brett Baber was presented with the prize named for one of the Queen City’s legal legends by the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Baber, 49, of Veazie was given the award at a reception at the Sea Dog Restaurant for his work over the past year to organize a law clinic in cooperation with the VLP that would be staffed by members of the Penobscot County Bar Association. The clinic is scheduled to be open Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings, beginning Oct. 3.
The clinic would offer limited representation to people involved in civil litigation who cannot afford to hire attorneys, he said, but would not represent them in court. Attorneys would meet with clients for 30 minutes to give them advice on how to best represent themselves in the areas of family, bankruptcy and probate law.
It would be the first legal aid clinic in the state staffed by members of a local bar association, Baber said.
“We didn’t have an exact model to base this on,” he said after the ceremony. “We based it on the legal clinic at the University of Maine Law School in Portland.”
The Vafiades award was created to honor lawyers in northern and eastern Maine who provide pro bono or free legal services in civil lawsuits. Lawyers are not required by the rules that govern their profession to volunteer their services, but pro bono work is a deeply rooted professional tradition.
The award is named after Lewis Vafiades, who died in 2001 at age 81. With his cousin Nicholas Brountas he founded the Bangor law firm that still bears their names — Vafiades, Brountas & Kominsky.
“I hope to honor the spirit of Lew Vafiades through the legal clinic,” Baber said in accepting the award.
Baber said that if every member of the Penobscot County Bar Association would help out at the clinic, a lawyer would be staffing the clinic only once every three years.
U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock, who presented the award, said Baber was being recognized for his “exceptional commitment to providing equal access to justice for the people of Maine.”
Baber was born in Iowa City, Iowa. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1982 in political science from the University of Southern Maine. He graduated three years later from the University of Maine School of Law, where he served as a research editor for the Maine Law Review.
He spent the first 15 years of his career with firms in Portland and Bangor. In 2000, he opened his own personal injury firm in Bangor before joining Lanham Blackwell two years ago. Baber also has taught classes at Husson University and the University College of Bangor.
Baber has served on the Board of Governors of the Maine State Bar Association since 1998 and last year was president of the Maine State Bar Association. He also is a member of the American Bar Association, the Penobscot Bar Association and the Maine Trial Lawyers Association.
The attorney lives in Veazie with his wife, Gayle Baber. The couple has four children. Baber also works as an announcer for the University of Maine football and women’s basketball teams.
He is active in the Knights of Columbus and is a Eucharistic minister and a lector at St. John’s Catholic Church in Bangor.
For information on the Volunteer Lawyers Project’s legal clinic, call 942-9348.