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Lawyers: 'Billable hours for the soul' in Texas

Some 350 lawyers from all over Texas are converging on San Angelo to represent free of charge the 416 children and scores of parents caught up  in a raid on a polygamist sect's compound.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They don't know where they're staying. They don't know if there's a courtroom large enough to hold them all. And they don't know who their clients are.

But some 350 lawyers from all over the Lone Star State are converging on this West Texas city to represent free of charge the 416 children and scores of parents caught up nearly two weeks ago in a raid on a polygamist sect's compound.

"We've got a saying in this pro bono business here that it's 'billable hours for your soul,"' said Dallas attorney Ken Fuller, as he geared up to head to San Angelo, about 275 miles away. He jokingly added: "We're just redneck lawyers. We're just going down there to make sure due process is followed."

A marathon court hearing is set for Thursday in one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history. State officials contend the youngsters were being physically and sexually abused, and they want to place the children in foster care or put them up for adoption.

The sheer size of the case prompted the Texas state bar to call for volunteer lawyers to represent the children, as well as any parents who want to fight for custody. Unlike some other states, Texas does not require lawyers to do pro bono, or unpaid, work.

Stewart Gagnon, a family law specialist with Fulbright and Jaworski, one of the biggest law firms in Texas, said he and 11 attorneys from the Houston firm are making the trek.

"I think it's important for lawyers to be involved where they're trained to be," he said.

Walking into confusion
The lawyers will be walking into a confusing situation. Authorities have been unable to sort out the sect members' family arrangements and match the children with their parents.

Like Fuller, Gagnon has no information about his client — not even a name or an age. The lawyers do not even know how they are going to confer with their clients before the hearing.

"I understood the office of court administrator was trying to arrange for some technology, including scanning of documents so lawyers will be able to view them on computer access. And there's also the possibility of video conferencing," Gagnon said.

Another unanswered question is how to accommodate 350 lawyers at the 80-year-old Tom Green County courthouse when the judge's quaint courtroom — with a chandelier hanging from a huge yellow daisy-like design on the ceiling — can hold only half that many spectators.

Where to sleep?
Gagnon and his colleagues also are scrambling to find a place to sleep for what they believe will be at least two nights in San Angelo, a university town of 90,000. He said he and his colleagues will probably arrange to stay at the homes of some lawyers they know.

State child welfare officials rounded up the children at an Eldorado ranch belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon sect.

Lawyers from distinguished law firms aren't the only ones responding.

Donna Broom, director of Houston's South Texas College of Law Direct Representation Clinics, and law professor Betty Luke are going. The clinics represent the poor in family law cases. Broom said she expects a large number of law students to help out, too.

"Any case that has children involved I want to be a part of to make sure those children's best interests are taken care of," Broom said.