2023 Pro Bono Award Winners Announced

The 2023 Pro Bono Award winners have been selected and will be recognized during the NCBA Annual Meeting on Friday, June 23 in Wilmington. The recipients are:

  • Greenblatt Outstanding Lawyer Award: Carlene McNulty – NC Justice Center
  • Thorp Pro Bono Service Award: Erik Zimmerman – Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson PA
  • YLD Pro Bono Award: Troy Shelton – Fox Rothschild LLP
  • Outstanding Paralegal Pro Bono Service Award: S.M. Kernodle-Hodges – Tolliver, Richardson & Kernodle LLC
  • Outstanding Collaborative Pro Bono Award: Afghan Asylum Project – Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein and Pisgah Legal Services
  • The Filling the Justice Gap Award: Charlotte Initiative to Mobilize Business
  • Law Firm Pro Bono Award: Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein
  • Law School Pro Bono Service Award: North Carolina Central University School of Law Elder Law Project

Greenblatt Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award – Carlene McNulty

Carlene, a white woman with brown hair, wears a bright blue shirt and black jacket.Presented to a lawyer who is employed full time by a legal services program in North Carolina and who has made an exemplary contribution to the provision of legal assistance to help meet the needs of the poverty population in North Carolina.

Deborah Greenblatt served as the executive director of Carolina Legal Assistance for more than two decades, where she persevered as a champion for the rights of individuals and children with disabilities despite challenging political and judicial setbacks.

Carlene McNulty joined the Justice Center’s predecessor organization, the N.C. Legal Services Resource Center, in February 1996, and has helped lead the Center’s ambitious impact litigation efforts ever since. Initially designed to provide legal assistance to low-income individuals who were statutorily barred from receiving assistance from federally-funded legal aid organizations, the Justice Center’s litigation unit has grown into a formidable independent force against poverty and injustice.

A specialist in consumer law, McNulty has helped co-counsel numerous important class actions against powerful, predatory lenders. In addition to managing a large caseload that includes class action and impact litigation, McNulty also provides back-up support for the work of legal aid advocates and pro bono attorneys. Prior to joining the Center, she worked at North State Legal Services in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where she won the prestigious Julian Pierce Award as North Carolina’s outstanding legal services advocate.

Thorp Pro Bono Service Award – Erik Zimmerman

Erik, a white man with brown hair, wears a pale blue shirt and black jacket.Presented to an NCBA member attorney who practices in North Carolina and has provided substantial legal services, in excess of the aspirational goals of Rule 6.1, with no expectation of receiving a fee, to a client or client group that could not otherwise afford legal counsel. The nominee should have engaged in the direct delivery of legal services to clients or a client group over an extended period of time and those efforts should be ongoing. Nominees must not be employed on a full-time basis by an organization that has as its primary purpose the provision of free legal services to the poor.

A founder of Legal Services of North Carolina, the Pro Bono Service Award was renamed in 2002 to recognize William Thorp’s service to the low-income people of North Carolina.

Erik Zimmerman is a shareholder in the Research Triangle office of Robinson Bradshaw. He represents clients in a broad range of commercial litigation matters, with a focus on appeals. He has argued in the Fourth Circuit and the North Carolina appellate courts and has filed numerous briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and appellate courts nationwide.

Erik often handles pro bono appeals. He has represented clients pro bono in the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal courts of appeals, and the North Carolina appellate courts on a wide range of matters, from landlord-tenant disputes to high-stakes constitutional cases.

Erik co-chairs Robinson Bradshaw’s Appeals Practice Group. He also serves on the North Carolina Bar Association’s Appellate Rules Committee and Appellate Practice Section Council.

Erik clerked for Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr., and for Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the Fourth Circuit. Erik graduated from Stanford Law School and Harvard University.

A Cary native, Erik now lives in Chapel Hill with his wife, Danielle, and their two children, Abbie and Henry.

Young Lawyer Pro Bono Service Award – Troy Shelton

Troy, a white man with brown hair and a beard, wears a white shirt, grey tie, and dark grey jacket.Presented by the NCBA Young Lawyers Division to an NCBA Young Lawyers Division member who has made extraordinary contributions by providing exemplary legal services without a fee and increased access to justice on behalf of persons of limited means and/or charitable groups or organizations. Nominees must not be employed on a full-time basis by an organization that has as its primary purpose the provision of free legal services to the poor.

Troy Shelton is an appellate partner in the Raleigh office of Fox Rothschild LLP. A board certified appellate specialist, Troy is dedicated to helping clients – including those who are indigent – pursue appeals in federal and state courts across the country. Over the years, Troy has represented on a pro bono basis many children who were abused and neglected by their parents, individuals facing foreclosure, and victim’s rights organizations. In a 2021 pro bono case, Troy persuaded the North Carolina Supreme Court to unanimously recognize that children have a constitutional right to a learning environment free from abuse and bullying. In 2018, he partnered with the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center to launch the first pro bono program for the state’s appellate courts. Troy is also assisting the state’s appellate courts in creating forms and guidance documents for people representing themselves on appeal. Beyond the courtroom, Troy serves as a monthly columnist for North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, where he writes about topics of general interest to the state’s legal community. He has held various leadership positions with the Appellate Practice Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. He was also appointed to the Appellate Rules Committee, which helps the Supreme Court of North Carolina revise and promulgate rules governing appeals.

Outstanding Paralegal Pro Bono Service Award – S.M. Kernodle-Hodges

S.M., a Black woman with black hair, wears a pale blue button-down shirt.The Outstanding Paralegal Pro Bono Service Award is presented to an outstanding NCBA Paralegal Division member who has volunteered a substantial amount of time in pro bono legal service to increase access to justice on behalf of persons of limited means and/or charitable groups or organizations. Pro bono service must have been completed under the direct supervision of an attorney licensed in the State of North Carolina in accordance with Rule 6.1. Nominees must have worked as a paralegal in a part-time, full-time, or freelance capacity in the year they are nominated for the award or be a retired paralegal who continues to give back to the community through pro bono service.

M. Kernodle-Hodges is a Legal Project Manager for Tolliver, Richardson & Kernodle, LLC in Raleigh. The firm specializes in the areas of project management, compliance, regulatory reform, advocacy, mediation, law enforcement dialogue facilitation, and community engagement. Currently, she is the Program Coordinator and Clerk for Wake County’s Legal Support Center.

Before that time, she worked for ten years as a Criminal Justice Official. She holds an Associate of Science Degree in Administrative Justice from Patrick Henry Community College and a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Averett University. She also graduated from Duke University’s Law Studies Paralegal Program and obtained her North Carolina Certified Paralegal credential (NCCP) from the North Carolina State Bar. Some of her noteworthy accomplishments include being a (NCCMC) North Carolina Certified Municipal Clerk, a FINRA Arbitrator, a Superior Court Mediator and Federal Court Mediator for Western District of North Carolina, a Nationally Credentialed Advocate (CA) and a (VSP)Victim Services Practitioner.

As a graduate of the University of South Florida’s DEI program, Kernodle strives to create a more diverse workplace, address equity issues, and foster inclusivity. She is a dedicated North Carolina Guardian ad Litem (child advocate) for Wake County’s 10th Judicial District. She serves the legal community as Co-Chair for the Utilization Committee with the North Carolina Bar Association, as Co-Chair for the (SOGI) Sexual Orientation and Gender Identification Pro Bono Committee, and as Co-Chair for the Paralegal Division’s Pro Bono Committee with the North Carolina Bar Foundation, Director for the Pauli Murray LGBTQ+ Bar of North Carolina board. She is a Board Member of the North Carolina State Bar Board of Paralegal Certification. She is also the Co-Founder of the (NCJFAP) Justice for All Project in North Carolina. Kernodle-Hodges was appointed to the North Carolina State Bar’s Subcommittee Studying Regulatory Change. The subcommittee was created to study regulatory reform and present recommendations and initiatives the State Bar should pursue, including ideas such as creating a limited license for paraprofessionals, initiating a court navigators program, and liberalizing the rules on the (UPL) unauthorized practice of law.

She has also worked for the North Carolina Department of Justice Office of the Attorney General in the Consumer Protection Division, where she oversaw high level mediation and settlement of consumer complaints. Her areas of specialization were utilities, health care, financial fraud, and antitrust matters.

Outstanding Collaborative/Group Pro Bono Service Award – Afghan Asylum Project

Ben, a white man with grey hair, wears a grey sweater, Max, a white man with grey hair wears a blue button-down shirt, and Michael, a man with brown hair, wears a grey sweater.

Volunteer attorneys Ben Gilbert, Max Gibbons and Michael Greer all worked with Afghan clients.

Presented to a group of law firms or attorneys, or a local, district, statewide bar organization whose members have engaged in significant and notable legal services or have contributed outstanding support and assistance to the maintenance of pro bono legal services for low-income individuals. This award recognizes creativity in the provision of pro bono legal services as well as innovative approaches to engage and encourage North Carolina attorneys to participate in pro bono legal service. Honorees will have demonstrated a commitment to pro bono service by engaging a group of attorneys in a cooperative pro bono effort that has a deep impact on the lives of low-income North Carolinians.

The Afghan Asylum project began in March 2022 when Pisgah Legal Services learned from local refugee resettlement agencies in Asheville that dozens of Afghan newcomers in the community had no legal help to navigate the complex asylum process and submit applications within one year of their arrival in the United States (August 2022 for most).

Twenty-two Western North Carolina attorneys and eleven Parker Poe attorneys signed on to help Pisgah Legal’s immigration team. Originally, volunteers were asked to commit 10 hours of their time to assist with asylum applications, but Pisgah staff and project volunteers quickly discovered that the cases would be much more complex than anticipated. The project was led by Jacob Oakes (Pisgah Legal Services), Tiffany Burba (Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein), Rob Lamb (Hatchrockers Law), and Bill Hoffman (King & Spalding).

Volunteers navigated challenges posed by significant language barriers, literacy issues, and fundamental cultural differences relating to the calendaring of dates and the marking of life’s milestones, such as birthdates and marriage dates. As volunteers worked with the clients, it became clear that the clients could not navigate the asylum interview process without legal representation. Pisgah Legal Services decided to help as many Afghan clients as possible and volunteer attorneys stepped up to help, with many of the volunteers who completed asylum applications agreeing to represent their client at their asylum interview. Ultimately, volunteer attorneys represented 35 Afghan clients through their asylum application and interviews, contributing more than 1,700 hours of pro bono services.

The Filling the Justice Gap Award – Charlotte Legal Initiative to Mobilize Business

Kimberly, a white woman with blond hair, wears a blue shirt and black jacket. Kate, a white woman with blond hair, wears a black blouse.

Kimberly Zirkle, left, and Kate Maynard, right.

Presented to an attorney, law firm, or organization making innovative strides with providing legal services to close the legal services gap in North Carolina. The legal services gap exists when clients of limited means do not qualify for free civil legal services/representation in matters affecting their basic needs by a legal services provider and cannot afford to retain an attorney. The nominee shall have demonstrated how their innovative approach has helped close this legal services gap for these clients of limited means.

Minority-owned and women-owned small businesses in North Carolina often face daunting obstacles finding and affording competent legal counsel. To help fill this access-to-justice gap, Kimberly Zirkle of Moore & Van Allen and Kate Maynard of Robinson Bradshaw spearheaded the creation of the Charlotte Legal Initiative to Mobilize Businesses (CLIMB) in 2021 and McGuireWoods, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, and Bradley Arant Boult Cummings joined shortly afterward. Today, CLIMB has provided more than 900 hours of pro bono transactional legal services to low-income entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Charlotte area, with a focus on businesses whose ownership consists primarily of people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, veterans or disabled persons.

The need for these services is great. Of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas, Charlotte ranked last in economic mobility in a 2014 study led by a team from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. A new business can be a lifeline to upward mobility for women and minorities, but even those who wouldn’t usually qualify for pro bono services often struggle to afford even the most essential legal services for starting a business.

CLIMB’s leaders crafted an innovative design to ensure its services would reach communities with the greatest need. CLIMB accepts applications primarily through its relationships with a small number of referral partners who work with members of the communities. CLIMB seeks to serve. It accepts clients with incomes up to 500% of the federal poverty level, whereas traditional pro bono providers often set their caps lower. This allows CLIMB to fill the gap and serve clients who can’t access traditional pro bono services.

Attorneys who volunteer for CLIMB — more than 100 from the participating firms — provide many of the same legal services they provide to large corporate clients, just on a smaller scale and to a community of entrepreneurs who would otherwise struggle to access counsel. To date, 98% of CLIMB’s clients have been people of color.

In its first year, CLIMB counseled a diverse group of more than 60 entrepreneurs on a range of legal questions typically facing small businesses, including business formation, corporate governance, tax implications, supplier and services contracts, and employee contracts.

CLIMB’s work has been transformational for its clients. “Without CLIMB, we would have had to hire an attorney to assist me — something my business could not afford to do,” one client reported.

“I am grateful for the CLIMB program because we are now able to accomplish the things that we have been wanting to do for years to elevate our business.”

Using an innovative approach to the delivery of pro bono legal services, CLIMB helps close this legal services gap, advances the causes of racial and social justice, and makes an impact in the local community.

Law Firm Pro Bono Award – Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP

The Parker Poe logo reads "Parker" in black font and "Poe" in green, with "Attorneys and Counselors at Law" below.The Law Firm Pro Bono Award recognizes law firms for their commitment to pro bono service through the contribution of pro bono hours, the percentage of billable hours devoted to pro bono work, the number and percentage of firm attorneys providing pro bono legal service, the firm’s creative approach to pro bono engagement, the consistency and sincerity of its pro bono program and the presence of a law firm culture that is grounded in the observance of Rule 6.1 (Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service) of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

For more than a century, Parker Poe has represented many of the Southeast’s largest companies and local governments in transactions, regulatory issues, and complex litigation. The firm has more than 275 attorneys across eight offices in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.

Parker Poe has a rich tradition of providing pro bono legal services. The firm’s pro bono work has included representing the interests of abused and neglected children in the Carolinas and Georgia, advising on the development of affordable housing for senior citizens, protecting the intellectual property rights of nonprofits, and providing legal assistance to refugees seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Nigeria, and other countries.

Parker Poe maintains an active Pro Bono Committee that spearheads and coordinates initiatives across all eight of the firm’s offices. The firm also partners with clients and legal services nonprofits on pro bono opportunities, working closely with them to identify needs in local communities.

Law School Pro Bono Service Award – NCCU School of Law Elder Law Project

The logo for North Carolina Central University School of Law is in maroon. The words "Pro Bono Clinic" appear below, with the icon of a heart with the scales of justice in white within the heart.Presented to an outstanding law student group whose pro bono project advanced access to justice in North Carolina. Consideration will be given to law school groups or projects engaging two or more North Carolina law school students who are not receiving law school academic credit for their work and who have provided assistance to low-income people in North Carolina.

The NCCU Law Elder Law Project (ELP) aims to specifically serve clients that are 60 years of age or older with legal needs. NCCU ELP recognized the access to justice barriers for older citizens who lack the resources for legal support and services. As a result, trained law students worked under the supervision of Pro Bono Director, Lakethia Jefferies, and alumnus William “Bill” Moore, with assigned clients from Legal Aid of North Carolina to complete health care advance directives, durable power of attorney documents, and wills for low-income elderly citizens of Durham County.

Law students work on cases from start to finish, beginning with client intake, consultation, and the drafting of wills and other end of life documents. Most intake, consultation and document execution occur at the Durham Senior Center.