As with any tangled case that comes in, the staff at the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana knew to hand the custody case to their go-to attorney, John Cowan.
“We always go to him,” said Ruth de Wit, executive director of the VLP. “He will take the tough cases.”
The custody dispute was certainly tough. A mother was trying to get back her son who had been taken to Utah by his father, but she had no money for a lawyer and no custody or visitation orders to get the boy returned.
Cowan took the matter and went to court in Wells County to get an order, but the judge was hesitant to issue it ex parte. Unsure what to do next, he continued to research and eventually found the answer in the state’s statute regarding children born out of wedlock. Back in court, he argued Indiana law gave custody to the mother.
The court was convinced, and the mother was able to finally be reunited with her son.
Details of that 2008 case are now hazy for Cowan, but the mother has not forgotten and neither has the VLP. For that case and the more than 500 hours of pro bono service he has provided in the past eight years, Cowan is being recognized with the Pro Bono Publico Award from the Indiana Bar Foundation.
Also being honored at the foundation’s annual dinner Dec. 11 are:
• Beverly Corn for her longtime service at the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana, and
• Seamus Boyce, partner at Church Church Hittle & Antrim LLP, and Robert Dyson Jr., a retired senior project engineer in Fishers, for their work with the We the People civic education program.
Cowan, a partner at Tourkow Crell Rosenblatt & Johnston LLP in Fort Wayne, has devoted some of his practice to pro bono work since he graduated from Valparaiso University Law School in 1996. He cannot imagine a time when he will not volunteer his services.
“I just think it’s kind of incumbent upon all legal professionals to do this,” Cowan said. “If someone feels they can’t get representation or they feel cheated, that just isn’t right. They should have a lawyer and access to the legal system even if they have no money.”
Cowan decided to become a lawyer at the suggestion of his parents, but he learned some key skills to being a lawyer from basketball. Never actually wearing a uniform, he instead kept the stats for his high school team and served as a manager for former Indiana University coach Bob Knight. Occasionally, one of the managers would get pulled onto the court during practice to field rebounds or help run a play.
“I was ready,” Cowan said, “but I was never picked to help out.”
Still, from his time on the basketball court he realized the value of being prepared and being ready. His clients blend together and he often forgets who is paying for his services and who is a referral from VLP, but he always prepares and makes sure he is ready when they go to trial.
At the end of his workday, he goes home to his wife, Kim, and his four sons, ages 6 to 13.
Cowan is surprised by the pro bono award and did not even know he had been nominated. But, he said, “It’s nice to know people think highly of lawyers.”•