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Top Lawyers: Criminal and Personal Injury - Robert Stoney

Dec 27, 2010 Northern Virginia Magazine: Attorney Robert Stoney's office wall, beside a map of the Appalachian Trail (of which Stoney has hiked vast sections), is a portrait of U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall.

"Marshall," Stoney explains, "was the justice who, in the case Marbury v. Madison, established the rule that courts interpret the Constitution. Up until then, the executive and legislative
branches both thought that they could interpret it."

Stoney's admiration for Marshall, his perception of lawyers as disseminators of the law, informs his outlook on pro bono work.

"Every good lawyer gets calls each week from people who have meritorious claims that are too small for a lawyer to handle; a complaint that a plumber broke a garbage disposal or the landscaper made the backyard flood and it's going to cost a couple thousand dollars to fix it. It wouldn't ordinarily be worth a lawyer'S time to get involved."

In fact, Stoney cites research showing that as much as 90 percent of the population in need of legal aid receives no representation. For such a problem, the Fairfax attorney proposes a novel solution: Lawyers take small cases on a pro bono basis with the provision that their clients consider gifting money to Legal Services of Northern Virginia, a charity that provides legal representation to the poor.

"The idea is that every lawyer can commit to taking one or two of these small meritorious cases a year, or whenever they [have] the time. The client would consider making a donation to Legal Services of Northern Virginia, or any other charity of their choice. Since it's a voluntary donation, a tax deduction goes to the client."

Stoney has been experimenting with this form of pro bono work for years, most recently in a case he litigated last summer. "[The client] was a wonderful woman ... she was on her way to visit an elderly personal services client in Northern Virginia when she was struck from behind during rush hour. The cars were not extensively damaged, but her seat back did collapse in the collision, [aggravating] a preexisting back problem."

Stoney's client received medical treatment, incurring $4,500 in medical bills that her insurance company refused to pay. She then consulted Stoney, who evaluated her case to be worth $15,000-$20,000 in settlement; not enough for Stoney to take it on, and with a fee too high for the client. Stoney accepted the case on the premise that the client would consider making a charitable donation to LSNV.

"The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff for $25,000, slightly more than I thought the case should have settled for, but certainly within the reasonable range of a proper amount to compensate [the client] for her injuries. She made a $5,000 donation to legal aid.

"Proving that giving is infectious, one of her expert witnesses, Dr. Charles Citrin, spontaneously donated $2,000 of his expert witness fee to Doctors without Borders and St. Jude's Research Hospital."

"This modest project," Stoney adds, "is ripe for expansion."

It is not the only pro bono project Stoney involves himself with; he and other lawyers at his firm, Blankingship & Keith, also participate in something called the Attorney of the Day Program.

"One or two of our attorneys will go to Juvenile Delinquency Relations Court and represent people, typically women, in protective order cases when they've been victims of spousal abuse. We do that once a month and so do other firms. Legal Aid is coordinating the effort and making sure that every day of the month is covered. The Legal Aid people are the heroes of poverty law work. People like me and hundreds of other lawyers are the supporting cast; we help them do their job."

Asked if he litigates pro bono as a matter of conscience, Stoney replies in the negative.

"It's a lot more than that," he says. "Lawyers are given a great deal from society. Not only do we get the ability to make a living like this, we get to be the ones who are sort of 'masters' of the law. That is, we're given a courthouse where we can go and practice our trade; we're given juries, given judges and given clerks. We're given an incredible infrastructure in order for us to do what we do. So it's a matter of equity: We're given so much we ought to give some back."

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Mark Towery was also nominated. The complete list of nominees can be found here. The above article was originally published in Northern Virginia Magazine.

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