WATERVILLE — Martha Phillips plunked her box of files on the conference room table Wednesday at Waterville District Court and welcomed her first client of the morning, a woman who was filing for divorce and needed help filling out the paperwork.

Rebecca Want, 23, of Mount Vernon, told Phillips she has been married three years, her husband is in the military and agrees to the divorce and she, herself, will head to basic training April 25 with the Navy.

Want, who works part time in a pet store, can’t afford to hire an attorney for her divorce; that’s where Phillips’ expertise comes in.

A senior legal assistant and volunteer for the Family Law Project, Phillips, 60, spends the first Wednesday of each month at Waterville District Court, helping people who are indigent understand the court process and fill out legal forms. She also identifies cases for which attorneys may be needed.

Phillips has been doing this 22 years, since helping to establish the law project in 1994 as part of NALS, the Association for Legal Support Professionals, which formerly was the National Association of Legal Secretaries. Since the Family Law Project started, it has helped more than 1,000 people, typically those who are starting divorce or parental rights proceedings.

For 19 years, Phillips has been a senior legal assistant for Robert Sandy at his Waterville law firm, Sherman & Sandy.

Sandy supports Phillips’ leaving the office one day a month to volunteer at the courthouse. He says that, in addition to helping people involved in difficult circumstances that are often intensely emotional, she also is involved heavily in the legal support professionals association, inviting speakers and helping to enhance the knowledge and expertise of paralegals, secretaries and clerks.

Phillips is director of education for NALS of Central Maine, was president of both the Central Maine and Maine offices and is former director of the National Association of Legal Secretaries.

For her work and dedication to the legal profession, Phillips recently was recognized as the 2016 John W. Ballou Award winner by the Maine State Bar Association. The award, named for a Bangor lawyer and founding father of the Board of Overseers of the Bar, honors a Maine resident or native who demonstrates qualities in keeping with the aims and purposes of the bar association and who exemplifies the example set by Ballou.

She joins previous award winners that include lawyers, paralegals and volunteers, but also former secretary of state, U.S. senator and governor Edmund Muskie, as well as former U.S. senators Olympia Snowe, George W. Mitchell, Margaret Chase Smith and William S. Cohen, and former governor James B. Longley.

In accepting the award Jan. 22 at a Bar Association luncheon in South Portland, Phillips thanked members for supporting legal assistants who strive to meet the standards and responsibilities of the legal profession and who work to serve clients and ensure them access to justice.

“Your legal support professionals don’t leave our commitment at the door of the office,” she said in a brief speech. “Like you, we are community leaders, serving in elected and appointed positions. We serve on boards and committees. We work with and support nonprofit organizations and local churches, synagogues and mosques. We participate in community events.”

Wednesday at the Waterville District courthouse where she was assisting people with court papers, Phillips said she was proud and humbled to receive the award, for which she was nominated by NALS association members.

“I’m kind of astonished,” she said. “I am really proud that they picked a nonlawyer — a support staff.”

The volunteer work Phillips does reflects her deep conviction that equal opportunity must be ensured for people of all walks of life.

“I am very serious about advocating for economic justice and equal rights,” she said. “It all comes down to economic justice — making sure everyone has the same opportunities, the same educational opportunities, making sure everyone has what they need — a place to live, food to eat, an education, quality health care, quality care for their children. That’s my little soapbox.”

ABRUPT START, LONG CAREER

Phillips and her husband, Ray, director of Internet technology services at Colby College, moved to Maine from Oklahoma many years ago when he landed the Colby job.

Martha Phillips, who grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, had worked for a law office in Oklahoma City, as well in the civil and criminal divisions of Oklahoma’s attorney general’s office. She earned an associate degree in legal secretarial science from what is now Oklahoma City Community College.

“At the AG’s office, I worked in the federal criminal division,” she said. “The AG in Oklahoma does all criminal appellate work; in Maine, district attorneys offices do it. We did all criminal appeals and federal inmate litigation. It’s a wonderful practice of law. It’s pure law. Appeals are pure law.”

Her career in the legal profession, which she grew to love, had an abrupt start.

She was in her 20s and had worked five years as a secretary for the Catholic Diocese of Oklahoma City. She went through a divorce and needed to make a living, so she responded to an ad in the newspaper for a job at a law firm.

She got the job and was there only a week when the associate who did workers’ compensation work left the office.

“They put the files on my desk and said, ‘You are the workers’ comp expert,'” she recalled. “I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ and my boss said, ‘You should call so-and-so’s secretary. She does a lot of this stuff.’ The secretary’s first response was, ‘I have a group you need to join,’ and that was NALS. It’s so supportive. Its primary purposes are education and networking, and it does both of those very well.”

Before working at Sherman & Sandy, Phillips was a legal secretary at Pierce Atwood in Augusta, then worked for the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Maine State Bar Association and revised the Civil Service Manual for the Maine Sheriff’s Association.

Working at Sherman & Sandy, Phillips says she does a variety of work with criminal and family law, estate planning and other areas, as it is a true general practice, she said.

“I love the client contact, which I did not have at either the AG’s office or Pierce Atwood,” she said.

HELPING OTHERS

At the Waterville courthouse Wednesday, Phillips’ assistance was a relief to Want, the woman who was starting the process of filing for divorce.

“It was extremely helpful because I was super-concerned about filling the paperwork out the right way,” Want said.

After Want thanked Phillips and left the conference room, Tara Messner, 33, of Winslow, walked in. She had learned about Phillips’ services on the Maine Judicial Branch website, courts.maine.gov, she said.

Like Want, Messner needed help filling out forms she had downloaded from the website and printed off, which she brought with her.

Mild-mannered, friendly and detail-oriented, Phillips explained that she was not an attorney and could not give legal advice, but she was there as a volunteer to assist Messner.

They went through the forms, with Phillips explaining what was needed on each, in case Messner had missed anything.

“I wasn’t sure what I needed and what I didn’t need,” Messner said.

Afterward, Messner said Phillips had been both patient and understanding.

“I was so glad to see on the Web page that there was somebody here to help,” she said. “It was a big relief, because you don’t find too many places that actually have this service.”

Phillips said Messner’s and Want’s cases were fairly easy, but there have been situations in which she has advised people they need an attorney.

“If it’s going to be high conflict, if there’s lots of property in a sort of complicated financial situation, they really should consult an attorney,” she said. “I refer them to the Volunteer Lawyers Project, or the bar association has a referral program.”

Robert Marden, a Waterville lawyer who is the supervising attorney for the Family Law Project, said Phillips has ensured the program has continued, and without her dedication and Sandy’s support of her volunteerism, it probably would not continue.

He said the model for providing services is unique, and most other assistance programs are staffed by legal service organizations such as Pine Tree Legal. Ten to 15 years ago, there was a greater effort to have legal assistance programs in courts, but it has been a volunteer effort on everyone’s part because of lack of funding, according to Marden.

“There’s been talk in past years to even go to a kiosk system in courts, where every court would have a uniform computer that people could have access to and perhaps a printer for forms; and that has, I think, really been held in abeyance because of lack of funding. Pine Tree Legal assistance has been a leader for years in the creation of user-friendly forms in the family law area, and preparation and upkeep and upgrade of software programs for the public to use and access for family-law-related questions,” Marden said.

One of only a handful of such volunteers in the state, Phillips provides a personal, rather than online, resource for people. Her knowledge, experience, common sense and people skills provide an invaluable resource that the bar association rightly recognized, according to Marden.

“It’s a wonderful honor for her, and it’s particularly great that they can recognize folks who are providing such direct service,” he said.

Phillips has gone above and beyond the call of duty in her work, he said.

“The community has certainly been better for it,” he said.

At the courthouse Wednesday, District Court Judge Patrick Ende entered the clerk’s office, where Phillips introduced herself and they discussed her volunteer work. Ende said that in the past, he did similar work at Pine Tree Legal.

“It’s a great help for people who have no money and not a clue about how to begin,” he said of Phillips’ work.

Amy Roy, an assistant clerk at the court 16 years, concurred.

“It is a big help, and I don’t know what we’re going to do when she’s gone,” Roy said.

Phillips said she and her husband both will retire this summer, and they plan to move back out west, likely to New Mexico, where he grew up and where they will be closer to their only child, Tina, 27, who is a child abuse investigator in Texas.

Meanwhile, Sandy said in his letter to the bar association supporting Phillips’ nomination that the Family Law Project started as an innovative plan by which staff members from various offices would go to the court on a rotating basis to meet with people needing help; but over time, involvement by other offices diminished. Phillips has kept the program going.

“For many years now, Martha has been the Courthouse Project,” Sandy said.

Phillips, he said, is deserving of the Ballou award for all the years she has labored diligently and well, in and for the legal profession.

“As she heads toward a well-deserved retirement this coming summer, I also believe that in a larger sense, bestowing this prestigious award on Martha will serve as a recognition from the bar of the crucial role played by the staff of our offices in the effective and compassionate delivery of the services that we are called to provide.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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