For nearly 30 years, Tappahannock Attorney John R. Rellick has not only handled the legal needs of seven counties with a small staff, but has been a pillar of support to his local community.
On Wednesday, his hard work and dedication to the Northern Neck and Upper Middle Peninsula was praised and rewarded by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
On May 1, the Virginia State Bar (VSB) announced that Rellick had been selected to receive the 2013 award for Legal Aid Attorney of the Year.
Originally a native of Pennsylvania, Rellick entered the legal profession as a staff attorney for Northwestern Legal Services in Erie, PA in 1978.
Six years later, Rellick moved to Virginia, where he joined Rappahannock Legal Services (RLS) as managing attorney for their Tappahannock branch office.
As the sole attorney in the branch, Rellick has covered cases in the rural counties of Essex, Richmond, Lancaster, Northumberland, Westmoreland, King William and King & Queen.
Currently, he only has paralegal Hope Bunch, whom he has worked with for 17 years, to assist him in cases.
But that hasn’t stopped him from lending a helpful hand and ear to others, said Ann H. Kloeckner, executive director of RLS.
“He’s just available all the time in a way that is pretty astonishing, considering the cases he has and what he’s got on his plate,” said Kloeckner, who added in her letter supporting Rellick’s nomination for the Legal Aid Award that he was “the glue that holds our office together.”
Kloeckner shared that the junior attorneys on staff often approach Rellick with questions.
Rellick, in turn, is always willing to offer them suggestions and talk through procedures, Kloeckner added.
RLS volunteer attorney Bill Botts praised Rellick for his extensive services to the community.
Botts highlighted his work with The Haven, the regional organization and shelter for domestic violence victims, and the Family Focus of Richmond County in supporting Rellick’s nomination for the award.
“His work with Family Focus garnered a nomination by the National Association of Counties as one of President George H. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light,” wrote Botts. “His nomination was approved by the President, and his name now appears on the Points of Light roll at the Bush Presidential Library.”
Joanna Suyes, Chairman of VSB, said the Bar was very impressed by his qualifications, and that Rellick’s work within the community was essential in determining his selection for the award, as his impact extended beyond his normal job.
“His colleagues were [enthusiastic] about the work he has done in the community to advocate on behalf of the elderly, domestic violence victims and people who need affordable housing,” said Suyes.
While noting that the selection process does not take service area into consideration, Suyes expressed her belief that attorneys working in the rural areas had a “little bit more difficult road to hoe” in comparison to legal aids in the cities.
“A lot of times they don’t have as many attorneys in their area who can volunteer and assist them with their normal workloads,” said Suyes. “People like John and others in smaller communities often have to rely on their particular skills to make an impact for the lower-income people.”
Kloeckner complimented Rellick’s extreme dedication, as well as his compassion for his clients.
“Our clients are poor, and they’re often treated like dirt,” said Kloeckner. “He treats them with respect. That’s a very important quality in someone professional who needs to solve somebody’s legal problems.”
Bunch noted Rellick’s position as Guardian ad Litem for children caught up in family disputes within their service area.
“I was able to sit in on one interview that John conducted with a two of his young clients,” said Bunch. “I saw that he was comfortable with children and easily found common ground with them. This allowed the children to trust him and speak openly.”
Bunch added that Rellick held a strong rapport with local clerks and judges, noting that the week before writing her letter of support for his nomination, an out-of-town counsel had spoken out of turn.
“Mr. Rellick doesn’t interrupt you,” said the presiding judge, according to Bunch. “Now, don’t you interrupt him.”
Bunch also valued Rellick’s ability to “size up the facts of a case” before making a decision on whether to provide assistance.
Kloeckner noted that, in the past fiscal year, Rellick and Bunch closed 292 cases and won $157,972 in monetary support and benefits for their clients.
Furthermore, Kloeckner drew attention to Rellick’s love for puns in brightening the mood of the workplace.
“When budget cuts resulted in a severe reduction in his staff’s salaries last year, he noted in describing the staff’s reaction: ‘They are resigned to it, but are not resigning!’” Kloeckner wrote. “You can count on his quick wit to turn a gut-wrenching day into a laugh fest. Anyone who has worked in the grim business of poverty law can understand the value of humor to give perspective during tough times.”
Rellick said he was very honored to receive the award.
“The Legal Aid community is quite large, so to be selected as Legal Aid Attorney of the year is an indication of professional achievement,” said Rellick. “It shows that my peers recognize me as somebody who has been committed to legal aid for a long time and is doing our job representing our clients.”
The VSB will present Rellick with his achievement during their annual meeting in Virginia Beach on Friday, June 14.