Legal Aid’s Barbara Degen honored for lifetime of disability advocacy

barbara-degen-ncaj-das-award.jpgMORGANTON, Jan. 11, 2017 – Long-time legal aid attorney Barbara Degen received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Disability Advocacy Section of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice at its annual meeting and CLE in Greensboro last month. The award honors Degen for "her incredible contributions to her profession," according to the organization. 

Degen has practiced poverty law in North Carolina for her entire legal career. In 1982, a few months after earning her law degree from Duke University, she turned down several lucrative job offers at private firms to become a staff attorney with Catawba Valley Legal Services (CVLS), the independent non-profit predecessor of the Morganton office of Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC). 

Photo caption: Barbara Degen (right), senior managing attorney of the Morganton office of Legal Aid of North Carolina, receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Disability Advocacy Section of North Carolina Advocates for Justice. Hilary Ventura (left), staff attorney in the Morganton office, presented the award.

At that time, CVLS was housed in temporary office space that was heated by wood that staff had to lug in from outside. 

"If that didn't scare her into running into the open arms of a corporate firm, nothing would," said Hilary Ventura, a staff attorney in LANC's Morganton office, who presented the award. "In fact, it likely strengthened her resolve." 

Degen chose to specialize in public benefits law early on in her career and is now known as Legal Aid's "benefits guru," in Ventura's words. "She truly is," Ventura said. "Over the years, Barbara's impact has been significant, not just in western North Carolina, but throughout the state because of her expertise in Social Security disability and other areas of benefits law." 

From 1996 to 2000, Degen led the state legal aid community's public benefits task force, which put her in charge of coordinating public benefits advocacy at a statewide level. During that time, she spearheaded a project to provide representation to several thousand low-income disabled children who were terminated from the federal Social Security disability program following the implementation of welfare reform in 1996. She currently holds a comparable position as LANC's public benefits practice group manager. 

In 1997, Degen became the co-director of CVLS, serving in that capacity until 2002, when it merged with other civil legal aid providers to form Legal Aid of North Carolina. Degen became the office's senior managing attorney, the position she holds today. She is also the regional manager of LANC's West region, which includes six of the organization's field offices. 

North Carolina's legal community previously recognized Degen for her accomplishments, including her contributions to the decades-long Alexander v. DHHS class-action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration, when the North Carolina Bar Association honored her with its Outstanding Legal Services Attorney Award in 1995. 

In January 2016, North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin appointed her to serve as a member of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, a group established by the state supreme court to expand access to the civil justice system for low-income North Carolinians. She has also served on the boards of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys, and on the executive committee of the Disability Advocacy Section of North Carolina Advocates for Justice, serving as its chairperson in 2011-12. 

Degen does not confine her public service to the legal community. From 1988 to 1994, she served on the board of directors of Options of Burke County, a shelter and advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape. She was board treasurer for several of those years. Degen also served two terms on the North Carolina Human Relations Commission from 2000 to 2008. Finally, she co-founded the local chapter of Amnesty International in Morganton in the '80s. 

Concluding her remarks to the audience of Barbara's colleagues at the event, Ventura said, "I have had the privilege of working day to day with Barbara and I am a better person for it, as I know are all of you who have worked with her over the course of your careers."

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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

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