by Michelle Alden
In 1997, the Dallas Bar Association and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas joined their previously separate pro bono programs to create the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP). The now 20-year-old program combines the volunteer resources of the Dallas Bar Association with Legal Aid’s expertise in providing legal help to the poor. Today, DVAP is the largest and most comprehensive provider of pro bono legal services in Dallas. The program is recognized locally, regionally, and nationally as a leader in the pro bono community because of its unique partnership between a bar association and legal aid organization.
Currently, legal aid programs around the nation face a crisis over how to pay for the legal aid services they provide. Committed volunteers provide their legal services free of charge; however, funds are needed to coordinate clinics, recruit volunteers, train and mentor volunteers, and oversee the thousands of cases that DVAP handles every year.
Federal and state funding are tied to legislative support for legal aid to the poor, which has, unfortunately, not been a high enough priority in recent budgets. Federal and state funding cuts threaten the future of DVAP and other legal aid programs across Texas and the United States. Rather than waiting for the next round of funding cuts, Dallas Bar Association President Michael K. Hurst decided to take a proactive approach by creating a DVAP Endowment (the Endowment). The Endowment strives to create and maintain long-term funding to secure legal aid to the poor in Dallas should traditional funding methods shrink or cease to exist. Accordingly, the Endowment functions to provide a dependable safeguard to the DBA’s efforts to help fund pro bono legal services. The Endowment shall be used solely for the support of DVAP.
The first donor to step up to fund the Endowment, with a gift of $50,000, is Aubrey Connatser of Connatser Family Law. Aubrey is a longtime supporter of DVAP. She has given over $100,000 to the Equal Access to Justice Campaign since 2006, and that does not include her inaugural gift to the Endowment. Aubrey has made this extraordinary gift to honor the memory of her mentor, Ken Fuller.
“Ken Fuller was a trailblazer in our field. His hard work landed him at the top of his profession and his big heart dictated that he give back tirelessly through DVAP. The limitless potential of our profession would be realized if all lawyers followed in his path. Hard work and giving back can change the world, one person at a time,” Ms. Connatser said.
Many lawyers knew of Ken’s professional accomplishments, including being a named partner in KoonsFuller, being named a Texas Super Lawyer and one of the Best Lawyers in Dallas by D Magazine, and being inducted into the State Bar of Texas Family Law “Hall of Legends” in 2003. Many lawyers were also of aware of his extensive pro bono work and experienced Mr. Fuller convincing them to accept a pro bono case. Mr. Fuller is very fondly remembered at DVAP. For many years, he spent his Mondays and Tuesdays at DVAP—mentoring volunteers, assisting in-house with staffing, handling cases, and doing prove-ups. Mr. Fuller is missed by so many who had the good fortune to learn from him over the years, both through his knowledge of family law and those who were inspired by his example to give back to the community. Ms. Connatser learned from the best, and her generous tribute to Mr. Fuller is fitting indeed.
“Aubrey Connatser knows the importance of ensuring that legal aid to the poor is funded for generations. For all people, for all time. I was not surprised when she once again wanted to put her money where her heart is, and become the DVAP Endowment’s first major donor to honor the memory of Ken Fuller. Aubrey’s leadership will no doubt have a lasting impact on our Community,” said Mr. Hurst.
Ms. Connatser and the attorneys of Connatser Family Law are committed to results-oriented, focused, creative problem solving. They harness these elements in every divorce, child custody matter, pre- and post-marital agreement, modification, and collaborative law matter in their practice. Ms. Connatser’s empathetic nature is an asset in her family law practice, and she has a long history of giving back, from doing community service at the Episcopal School of Dallas to volunteering at the Children’s Advocacy Center during her college and law school days at the University of Texas. She then volunteered at the Domestic Violence Clinic at UT Law School, and has been involved with pro bono work ever since.
“We are so blessed,” said Ms. Connatser of the legal profession. “We have the chance to make a huge impact on someone’s life by doing things that, to us, are really simple, but help others with things that are insurmountable for them.” Ken Fuller would wholeheartedly agree.
Michelle Alden is the Director of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.