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VOL. 123 | NO. 81 | Thursday, April 24, 2008

Baker Donelson's Peacher-Ryan In Tune With Pro Bono Needs

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"The (pro bono) need is huge and the available resources are scarce."

-Carla Peacher-Ryan
Name: Carla Peacher-Ryan
Position: Shareholder
Firm: Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC
Basics: Peacher-Ryan has been appointed, along with
Antonio L. Matthews, to oversee and coordinate the firm's pro bono work in Memphis.

Carla Peacher-Ryan, a shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, has been appointed, along with Antonio L. Matthews, to oversee and coordinate the firm's pro bono work in Memphis.

Peacher-Ryan, who is a transactional lawyer focusing on real estate, mergers and acquisitions, and commercial finance, has been involved with pro bono work since the 1980s. She has been a recipient of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change Certificate of Recognition for her pro bono work.

Q: You, along with Antonio L. Matthews, are working to oversee and coordinate Baker Donelson's new pro bono initiative in Memphis. What does this expanded pro bono program entail?

A: It's more a matter of putting structure to what we've done all along. For years, we've monitored what we called pro bono, and do what we also call public service work; maybe helping with a Habitat for Humanity house or mentoring a kid, that type of activity that's not providing legal services to the poor, per se. We've always kept up with those hours; that was one of the requirements of being a lawyer here. Now we have a more structured program. We now give 20 billable hours for every 20 hours of pro bono work. So it's part and parcel of your work requirements, so to speak, and we have a formalized intake system. For instance, I'm president of the board of the Community Legal Center and Tony is actually president of the board of Memphis Area Legal Services and they both feed us pro bono cases.

Q: So that's how you get your pro bono cases, through MALS or CLC?

A: Some of it is that. Others, maybe we have different people that are on different boards, and we have several people that are involved in some of the charter schools, (and) we've had people involved with (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association). There are a variety of ways of getting pro bono, but that's a pretty standard way of getting pro bono cases.

Q: Have you always focused on pro bono work in your career?

A: Well, probably. I'm a transactional lawyer; I don't usually take a pro bono divorce or anything, because I don't practice in those areas. And my specialty area doesn't always lend itself to pro bono work, although over the years I have done pro bono work with organizations and helped with bylaws and creating nonprofit corporations, that type of thing.

Q: You received the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change Certificate of Recognition for pro bono work representing the Fayette County Civil Rights Museum. What were the details of the case?

A: In the late 1950s and early '60s out in Fayette County, a group of black folks decided they wanted to start registering to vote, which really grew out of a criminal case. An older man was accused of killing a white person years before, and he got shipped back to Fayette County. A black lawyer from Memphis went out there to be his defense attorney. It was the first time a black lawyer had ever tried a case in Fayette County. As more and more (black) people started to register to vote, the white people got freaked out, basically, and started an economic boycott. They found themselves not being able to buy goods and services in Fayette County, and the whites started evicting the sharecroppers off the land. So the leaders of the movement - there were black landowners out there then - set up what was called "Tent City." For about two years, many black people lived in these big army tents in this big compound out in Fayette County as they fought for voting rights.

Flash-forward to the '80s, and a young woman whose parents were the leaders of that struggle was a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, and (she) came and clerked at our law firm. She went back to Harvard, graduated and started her career in Washington, D.C. She got interested in preserving that history, and so I worked with her. At one time, they were thinking about a rural civil rights museum. So I helped them get a 501(c)3 and a corporate charter, but as it turned out, the museum didn't really work out.

... All the archival materials and oral histories she did have been donated to the Hooks Institute. So it's an amazing story, an amazing family, and really the most satisfying thing I've been able to work on as a pro bono attorney.

Q: Do you think it's especially important for pro bono legal help to be available in the Memphis area?

A: Oh, absolutely, the need is huge and the available resources are scarce. And the private bar really has to step up to the plate if we have any hope of moving our city forward.

Q: You practice in commercial finance, mergers and acquisitions, real estate transactions, and opinion letters. Have you seen any changes in your practice with the economy, particularly the real estate sector, in decline lately?

A: Yes, I have. We can definitely see the effect of the economy on our practice right now.

Q: Is there any case, current or historical, that you would have liked to have been counsel on?

A: I wish that there was something the legal community - and the legal community is stepping up to this plate - but I wish there had been more that we could have done, or would have done, to help educate consumers regarding subprime lending.

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