Matt Stammel has always been close with his older brother, Mike, but the men are bonded by more than just brotherly love: Several years ago, Matt, a Dallas-based commercial and business litigation partner at Vinson & Elkins, joined his parents to become one of Mike’s legal guardians.
Born with cerebral palsy, Mike resides in an assisted living facility and relies on his parents and, more recently, his younger brother, to make various decisions about his care and wellbeing.
Matt takes his duties to his brother seriously. The guardianship appointment, he says, “made it much more important on a personal level to know that I had greater responsibility than just being Mike’s brother or friend —I had to get involved with the decisions and various processes and procedures that make a big impact on his day-to-day life.”
Matt’s understanding of life with a disabled loved one has inspired him to become one of the biggest advocates of V&E’s pro bono guardianship work. Since 2011, V&E has worked with hospitals and other organizations to provide free legal services to adults, usually parents, applying to become guardians of disabled teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.
Without guardianship appointments in place, parents of disabled teens could find themselves in dire straits, Matt explains.
“These kids turn 18 and the state basically says, ‘Hey parents, you can’t make decisions for your kids anymore until you are appointed their guardian.’ That’s just the rule,” he says. “For example, the next time they go the doctor with their child, the doctor isn’t supposed to let the parents do anything, even when the children are severely incapacitated.”
Through guardianships, parents have the right to make medical, legal and other key decisions for their adult children. To obtain a guardianship over a disabled person in Texas, the would-be guardian must fill out an application, get the appropriate documentation from the disabled person’s physician and participate in a court hearing, among other requirements.
Attorneys working on guardianship cases typically can secure guardianship appointments after 20 hours of work, Matt says. But not everyone can afford an attorney. That’s why the service pro bono attorneys provide is so valuable.
V&E’s work on pro bono guardianship cases began in Houston. It came about after V&E pro bono counsel Ellyn Josef happened upon families with disabled teens while visiting Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston with her own child.
“When I was there, I noticed kids who had been routine patients of the hospital. They were approaching adulthood and they were obviously going to need guardianships,” Josef recalls. “I just wondered, at this hospital, what do they do? Where do they refer these people?”
Josef would soon learn that, at the time, the hospital didn’t have a resource for families with limited resources … so she offered to help.
“We developed basically a referral system, where when guardianships became appropriate, they referred them to us,” Josef says. Later, Texas Children’s entered into a partnership with Houston Volunteers Lawyers, the pro bono arm of the Houston Bar Association, which continued to refer guardianship cases to V&E as well as to other firms.
As the Houston guardianships work continued, V&E expanded its efforts to its Dallas office, where attorneys like Matt Stammel were eager to come aboard. Many of the Dallas office’s cases have come through referrals from Scottish Rite Hospital. Josef estimates that, overall, the Houston and Dallas offices have handled roughly 75 pro bono guardianship cases in the last seven years.
For Matt, it is impossible to overstate the meaningfulness of such work. Matt grew up sharing a room with his brother and watched his parents make sacrifices over and over again to care for Mike.
“The parents who’ve been caring for the kids all their lives—they’re not just working caregivers, they’re legal caregivers.”
“Caring for a disabled child changes your life in immeasurable ways and until you’ve actually seen it and been through it, you don’t really know how great and selfless these guardians are,” Matt says.
“These people have done so much for their children throughout their whole lives. It’s the least we can do to give back, even just a little, by helping them with their legal issues in this critical time.”
Matt says that often the disabled teen and his or her parents are both present at hearings when a judge formally announces that a guardianship request has been approved. The teens, he says, are thrilled to learn that their parents will continue to take care of them, while the parents themselves are relieved.
“When the process is over,” Matt says, “there’s a real happiness in the courtroom.”