Pro Bono Award: Michael J. Cherry
The King County Bar Association is delighted to honor Michael Cherry with the 2016 Pro Bono Award for his service as a volunteer attorney with the Housing Justice Project in Kent.
Cherry first joined the Housing Justice Project (HJP) in April 2015 after an unusual career trajectory. Cherry, who hails from Alberta, started out working in the telephone and cable industry, which ultimately led to a long and successful career at Microsoft. Upon retirement from Microsoft, Cherry decided to try something new — law school. He attended Seattle University School of Law, completing his studies in 2011.
Although he enjoyed the intellectual rigors of law school, he found himself dealing with some significant health issues during that time, including receiving chemotherapy that often left him tired. Despite this, he persevered, knowing he would ultimately make a good attorney.
Upon becoming licensed, Cherry decided to volunteer with the HJP and agreed to make the long drive to the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the need for volunteers is greatest. He came in weekly — or sometimes twice weekly — and soon became a regular at the clinic despite dealing with ongoing health issues.
Cherry approaches his representation of tenants at the HJP with kindness and thoughtfulness. “I want them to feel that someone listened and didn’t judge or scold, but tried to leave them better prepared to move forward,” Cherry explains.
“The best days are those when I have helped the tenant negotiate a stipulation that helps the tenant keep their housing or have a chance to find new housing, … and I have helped them better understand the law as it applies to their rights and obligations as a tenant. On these days, I feel I have potentially solved a problem in the present and stopped a future problem at the same time.”
In the fall of 2015, an HJP staff member approached Cherry with an interesting question. The inaugural Social Justice Hackathon was coming up and the staff member wondered if Cherry, given his background in technology, might have some good ideas to propose for the event. Cherry jumped right in with a terrific idea based on an issue he had seen in the HJP clinic many times: non-banking tenants who could not prove rental payments they had made in cash or with money orders. Cherry realized that most tenants had a smartphone with a camera and he quickly came up with a plan for an app that would give tenants a way to document their payments.
As part of the Hackathon, Cherry worked with a devoted team of programmers, students and project coordinators to develop the app, often meeting weekly to work out the details. The app was a finalist at the Hackathon and the group continues to work on its long-term production.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Cherry is already scheming about a new app, this time to help tenants living in uninhabitable housing.
“Michael Cherry has been a committed advocate since he started volunteering with the Housing Justice Project,” says HJP Managing Attorney Rory O’Sullivan. “He works hard to find innovative solutions for our clients both in court and in the community.”
In addition to maintaining a legal practice geared toward tech start-ups, Cherry also volunteers his time with the Bellevue Youth Court. This project is a criminal justice diversion program in which youth submit themselves to a court of their peers with the goal of rehabilitation through reconciliation.
Cherry also enjoys spending time with his wife of 40 years, Marilyn, who is a huge influence. “Her values and insights into people and situations are rock solid,” Cherry says. “We are opposites, so together we are very complementary.”
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