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Overdue tribute / April 08, 2010
I’m a firm believer in ‘fessing up to one’s shortcomings in neat and prompt fashion — easier to keep the sins straight that way — so please forgive me as I open today’s column with an account of sheer thoughtlessness and heedlessness. Mine, that is. And don’t worry, the story quickly improves.

First things first: Back in October 2009 I received the nicest note from local attorney Fred Black, who had seen a write-up on my uncle Henry McLaughlin in a magazine somewhere and forwarded it to me to reprint in the News & Record. “Let’s give Little Uncle Henry some local publicity for a job well done, as a good and faithful servant,” wrote Lawyer Black. Unfortunately, and somewhat crassly, I never acted on his suggestion and worse, never properly acknowledged the note. Um …. better later than never?

The heedless part? Well, I’m always looking for an excuse to skip out on having to pen another laborious column, and an event last week provided just the opportunity while also allowing me to circle back to the topic of conversation so kindly broached by Fred Black in the fall. The Downtown Richmond Marriott was the scene Wednesday for a retirement banquet in honor of Henry W. McLaughlin III, executive director of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. I was privileged to join many members of the family and Henry’s old friends in Halifax County at the event. But before getting into the red carpet stuff, here is Uncle Henry’s story, in brief, as relayed by one of the banquet speakers, Marty Wegbreit, CVLAS Senior Managing Attorney:

“Henry W. McLaughlin began his legal career in 1967 working with his attorney father in Halifax, Va. Foreshadowing the future, his first case was one he argued before a Writ Panel of the Supreme Court of Virginia. In 1978, he joined what was then [the] Neighborhood Legal Aid Society in Richmond. He thought it would be interesting. He was right. In March 1981, he became Executive Director of Central Virginia Legal Aid Society (CVLAS). This happened the same day of the first proposal to entirely defund federal civil legal services. Seeing opportunity as well as danger, Henry worked ceaselessly to mobilize real and lasting support from private attorneys to assist low-income people with legal needs and no other place to go.

“Under Henry’s leadership, CVLAS and the Virginia Bar Association received the Harrison Tweed Award of the American Bar Association for Pro Bono hotlines – of which the CVLAS hotline is Virginia’s first and largest. CVLAS and the Bar Association of the City of Richmond also received the award for the Pro Bono Housing Law program where lawyers come to legal aid, see clients and take cases back to their offices for court representation. Due to Henry’s vision, CVLAS is the first and only two-time winner of the award. Other pro bono efforts spurred by Henry help poor people get lawyers for protective orders, no-fault divorces, and emergency cases stopping evictions.

“In compiling these accomplishments, Henry led by example and was a prodigious litigator. No attorney ever outworked or outthought him. Henry and his team of litigators won a nationwide federal injunction halting evictions of public housing tenants without prior notice and an opportunity for a hearing, because it violated due process. Henry also represented public housing tenants in a federal court case which invalidated arbitrary, capricious, excessively overbroad and under-inclusive lease provisions.

“In January 2010, Henry won a federal court case against a mortgage leader who failed to follow federal regulations before trying to foreclose. The decision sets a precedent for thousands of other homeowners who have Federal Housing Administration mortgages being foreclosed upon without an opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with the lender.

“Since 1991, Henry has been a Fellow of the Virginia Law Foundation, and in 1994, he received the Virginia State Bar’s annual Legal Aid Award. Henry also is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the only legal aid attorney to be so honored. More recently, Henry was a Virginia Lawyer’s Weekly 2009 ‘Leader in the Law’ and selected by his fellow award recipients as the 2009 “Leader of the Leaders.” In March 2010, Henry received the Bar Association of the City of Richmond’s Hill-Tucker Public Service Award.

“For 32 years, Henry McLaughlin has been the inspiration behind legal aid in Richmond, tenaciously and tirelessly fighting for the rights of tenants, homeowners facing foreclosure, survivors of domestic violence, and victims of predatory lending. Henry often has said that the War on Poverty is a tragedy, but legal aid is positioned at an optimistic part of that, and those who are privileged to be legal aid lawyers can make a difference for our individual clients. More so than any other legal aid attorney in Virginia, Henry McLaughlin has made that difference.”

The luncheon was a fitting tribute to Uncle Henry’s political skills as well as his legal genius, with the crowd of 200 or so composed of community activists, high-priced corporate lawyers who perform much-needed pro bono services for poor clients, dedicated members of the CVLAS staff and many other denizens of the vast Friends of Henry universe. Emceeing the event was Anne Holton, former First Lady of Virginia and many years ago a Legal Aid lawyer who worked alongside my uncle at the Richmond office. She and Henry are longtime good friends, and she did her characteristically wonderful job of keeping the mood light and the pace snappy as the crowd celebrated the accomplishments of the departing CVLAS director and hero.

There’s not much I can add to Marty Wegbreit’s remarks reprinted above, except to say that lawyers are a frequent butt of jokes and often rightfully so, except when you need one — in which case you are highly advised to hire the best counselor you can manage. Uncle Henry has devoted his career to the proposition that everyone ought to have decent legal representation when the need arises, in keeping with late Supreme Court justice Hugo Black’s admonishment that “there can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” That’s the creed that my uncle has fought to uphold, at considerable personal cost, which is why I’m proud to dedicate today’s column to him. And now that he’s out on his own — true to form, “retirement” for Henry actually means “going into private practice” — we might even get to see him back home more often, shambling about the streets of Halifax. So if you encounter the distinguished fellow, feel free to say hello.
South Boston News
Henry McLaughlin

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