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September 30, 2011 3:20 PM

The Lateral: A Trial Lawyer with Pro Bono Bona Fides Joins Baker Donelson

Posted by Tom Huddleston Jr.

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Memphis-based Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz bolstered both its litigation practice and its pro bono efforts earlier this month with the addition of shareholder La'Verne Edney in the firm's Jackson, Mississippi, office.

Edney, 45, joined the firm's product liability and mass tort practice group September 13 after spending two years as general counsel for the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP), a nonprofit organization that provides free legal counsel to clients involved in civil cases but unable to hire attorneys on their own.

Formed in 1982 as a collaboration between the Mississippi State Bar Association and the Legal Services Corporation, MVLP's volunteers work on as many as 1,000 cases each year, many of them uncontested divorces, adoption and guardianship matters, and child-support proceedings.

As the group's general counsel, Edney oversaw the work of four part-time staff attorneys and some 700 volunteer lawyers, more than 500 of whom she recruited. She also traveled throughout Mississippi, visiting courts and working closely with the state's bar association and legal services programs to recruit volunteers and advocate for MVLP's mission. 

A Mississippi native and graduate of Mississippi College School of Law, Edney joined MVLP after meeting its executive director, Shirley Williams, while still with her previous firm, Jackson-based Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes.

"I realized," she says, "that the organization just needed a voice, somebody to really encourage attorneys who were as busy as I was in the practice to take cases—that they were not really that time-consuming, that we would provide the assistance that they needed to handle the cases."

Having committed to serve two years as MVLP's GC, Edney began to consider a move back to private practice last spring. She spoke with several firms in the Jackson area, but was especially intrigued by Baker Donelson.

Though she will be part of the product liability and mass tort practice group, Edney—who in the past has worked on everything from employment discrimination matters to medical malpractice cases—says she likes to run a wide-open litigation practice.

"Because of Baker Donelson's reputation and the broadness of the types of cases that they handle, it became one of the firms that I was interested in," she says.

The most recent Am Law 100 figures show that the 527-lawyer firm, which has 17 offices—most of them scattered throughout the South, as well as locations in London and Washington, D.C.—took in $248 million in gross revenue in 2010 and profits per partner of $460,000.

In addition to being able to handle an array of litigation matters and take advantage of a platform that extends well beyond Mississippi, Edney says that Baker Donelson offers her an opportunity to be heavily involved in pro bono work. She has already been appointed to the firm's pro bono committee and will serve as one of two pro bono coordinators within the Jackson office.

Lisa Borden, Baker Donelson's pro bono shareholder since 2008, says the firm is keen to crack The Am Law Pro Bono 100, which it has yet to do. Borden believes the goal is attainable given that Baker Donelson has more than doubled its pro bono output in the past several years, jumping from roughly 5,600 firmwide pro bono hours in 2007 to more than 12,600 last year, according to figures Borden provided The Am Law Daily.

Still, Baker Donelson does have work to do to make its way onto the Pro Bono 100 list. The firm's lawyers averaged 22.8 pro bono hours apiece last year, up from 10.5 hours in 2007. By comparison, Bryan Cave, the last-place firm on the Pro Bono 100, checked in with 45.8 pro bono hours per attorney in 2010, while top-ranked Jenner & Block lawyers averaged 169.5 pro bono hours. 

Edney, Borden says, "really wants to dig in and participate in the more structural aspects of our program." One way that Edney's MVLP experience will prove useful, Borden says, is in the ability it gives her to tap into a wealth of legal services contacts that can identify cases where Baker Donelson lawyers can make a contribution.

Edney agrees, saying that part of her focus will be on continuing "to educate people here about the kind of cases that are [available]."  She also hopes to assure the firm's attorneys that doing pro bono work will not eat up all of their time.

"You get to choose the kind of cases that you want to take," she says. "So, you can basically personalize the types of cases that you want to handle."

Considering Edney's background in recruiting attorneys into the pro bono cause, it's not hard to see how attorneys at her new firm will soon be heeding her call.

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