Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network Excellence Awards

2024 Excellence Awards

Lt. Governor Austin A. Davis
 Lt. Governor Austin A. Davis

Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Inc. hosted a celebration of the 2024 Excellence Awards on March 27, 2024 at the Hilton Harrisburg.

The celebration, emceed by former PLAN Executive Director Sam Milkes, featured a cocktail reception, with featured remarks by our Keynote Speaker Lt. Governor Austin A. Davis, and the award presentation to the recipients of the 2024 Excellence Awards.

2024 Excellence Award Program Booklet

These are the distinguished winners of the 2024 Excellence Awards. Their remarkable contributions have made a profound impact on countless individuals and families, embodying the true spirit of justice and service. 

Outstanding Attorney Advocate Award

This award recognizes exceptional advocacy, leadership, and dedication of attorneys within our Network. Recipients of this award exemplify the pinnacle of commitment and compassion in the equal justice community. Their exceptional advocacy, leadership, and dedication have significantly contributed to advancing justice and equity.


Donna Allen-Rosemond has over thirty years of experience as an attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS). Hired as a staff member, she went on to manage a neighborhood branch office, managed the paralegal staff, and was the senior staff attorney for the family lawsuit unit. She now focuses primarily on family law matters.

Donna was named one of the 2019 New Pittsburgh Courier’s “Women of Excellence” in recognition of her excellent legal work on behalf of victims of domestic violence, and in 2022 she was recognized as the Duquesne University Women's Law Association Woman of the Year.

Prior to NLS she worked for two years as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow. Donna is a member of the Pennsylvania and Allegheny County Bar Association. She serves as an active member of the Matrimonial Inns of Court, Domestic Violence Task Force, Mentor for Protection from Abuse Pro bono Volunteer attorneys, Court Relations Committee, the Green Book Initiative Committee, and the Subcommittee for Children’s Issues. In addition, she has been a volunteer for Crisis Center North and Women’s Center and Shelter. She is an Alleghany County Bar Association family law section council member, co-chair of Mentoring Committee, and co-chair of the Professionalism Committee. She is also a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., a public service sorority.

Donna is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Criminology. She received her Juris Doctorate at Duquesne University School of Law.


Erica Briant was appointed Legal Aid of Southeastern PA's Director of Community Engagement and Training in January 2023. In this new role, Erica continues to take expungement cases and leads the Community Engagement Unit. In addition, she coordinates LASP outreach efforts across Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties from a strategic perspective. Her role in directing staff training includes developing a staff training curriculum and identifying training opportunities outside the organization.

She also works with community organizations and others who wish to have LASP staff provide training about legal aid services.

Her prior roles at LASP have included Supervising Attorney of the Community Engagement Unit from 2019-2022, Staff Attorney from 2016-2019, and Equal Justice Works fellow from 2014-2016. Erica's legal work helps clients gain a fresh start through a practice focused on mitigating the collateral consequences of criminal records and legal name changes.

While a student, Erica interned providing legal services related to public benefits, immigration, anti-LGBT discrimination and domestic violence. Before law school Erica was a community organizer in Philadelphia and Peace Corps volunteer in Eswatini. She has traveled to 43 countries.

Erica holds a J.D. from Drexel University School of Law, where she taught the Justice Lawyering Seminar as an adjunct professor from 2016-2018. She holds a B.A. from Reed College. Erica is based in Norristown.

Outstanding Community Advocacy Award

This award celebrates clients, community leaders, legislators, and non-attorney volunteers who amplify our mission. Their advocacy and empowerment efforts stand as a testament to the profound impact community figures make daily.


Jane A. Downing recently retired from her position as Senior Program Officer for Economic and Community Development at The Pittsburgh Foundation. Hailing from Maine and a proud graduate of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, Jane's professional journey was shaped by a transformative advocacy campaign during her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama City, Panama. There, she successfully secured homeownership for residents of a condemned tenement district, igniting her passion for facilitating voice and action in community betterment initiatives.

Jane received a Master of Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, laying the groundwork for her notable career, which includes positions such as the Director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Planning Department. In this role, she translated direct community input into tangible improvements, championing initiatives ranging from city services to affordable housing, reflected in the city’s capital budget.

As a Senior Program Officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation, Jane presided over the first grants to fund Allegheny County’s inaugural five-year plan to prevent homelessness. Collaborating with activists, community-based organizations, development corporations, service providers, as well as city and county staff, Jane oversaw the creation of Just Mediation Pittsburgh and RentHelpPGH. These initiatives facilitated eviction prevention mediation to grow in scale such that currently, after three years of operation, over 150 eviction prevention mediations occur each month within this mediation partnership, and 96% of landlord-tenant mediations reach agreement to settle their dispute. As a result of this advocacy, members involved in the Pittsburgh Eviction Prevention Collaborative were recognized with an Excellence Award in 2022.

Jane was a proactive force in supporting advocacy initiatives aimed at tackling housing challenges, championing the establishment of mediation programs in Magisterial District Courts, the revision of Allegheny County’s housing section of the health code, and the augmentation of county eviction prevention services. Moreover, she played a pivotal role in distributing grants to Neighborhood Legal Services, safeguarding tenants' legal rights and broadening pro bono representation in eviction proceedings. Through her efforts, Jane secured an additional $1.5 million in eviction prevention funding, fortifying Neighborhood Legal Services’ eviction practice and underscoring her significant contribution to advancing housing justice for low-income Pennsylvanians.

Outstanding Non-Attorney Advocate Award

Celebrating the indispensable contributions of non-attorney staff in our Network, this award recognizes those who, through their roles, have left indelible marks on their community with steadfast advocacy and an enduring spirit of service.


Janice Meinert has provided advice, assistance, and direct representation to thousands of low-income Pennsylvanians through her work at the Pennsylvania Health Law Project for nearly 25 years. Joining the organization in 2000 as its first social worker, Janice embarked on the second chapter of her career, leaving her prior role supporting pregnant women, teen parents, and individuals with substance use disorders, to become an advocate for healthcare access in underserved communities.

It was by chance that Janice stumbled upon the Pennsylvania Health Law Project's advertisement for legal professionals, despite her lack of experience as an attorney or paralegal. However, her master's degree in social work and extensive expertise in behavioral health were a perfect match for the organization's needs.

In addition to decades of direct client work helping thousands of individuals access healthcare, Janice has played a pivotal role in advancing the Pennsylvania Health Law Project's mission through various avenues. She has contributed numerous newsletter articles, presenting dozens of trainings on a wide range of health-related topics, and developed a plethora of educational materials intended to empower consumers and advocates alike.

Among her most notable contributions are educational resources like "How to Access Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Services in Pennsylvania," "The Many Doors to Consumer Empowerment," and "Person-Centered Service Planning: What Pennsylvanians with Disabilities Need to Know about Getting Long Term Services and Supports in Community HealthChoices."

Janice is honored to receive this award and is grateful to work with her committed, compassionate, and supportive colleagues at the Pennsylvania Health Law Project and across the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.

Outside of her professional endeavors, she enjoys the beach, reading, traveling, and visiting her adult children and grandchildren in Maryland and North Carolina.


Soheila “Gigi” Nikpour is a paralegal in the Community Legal Services Employment Unit, assisting clients with unemployment benefits, criminal records, discrimination, and wage theft issues. Between 2020 and 2021, Gigi helped over 173 unemployment claimants overcome technological and language barriers and access Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) after being unfairly denied. Gigi has also worked in CLS’s SSI, Aging and Disabilities, Intake, and Homeownership and Consumer Rights units. As a result, she was able to give holistic assistance to clients looking for additional benefits during the pandemic.

Gigi became interested in justice work after she traveled as a volunteer to Turkey in 2009 to assist Iranian LGBTQ+ refugees seeking asylum in the US and Canada. In 2016, she joined the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs, formed an elder committee, and advocated for a long-term care bill of rights for LGBTQ+ seniors. She served as board president with Team Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Falcons Soccer Club, where she was inducted into the Soccer Club's Hall of Fame in 2010. Gigi earned her B.S. in Information Systems from Carnegie-Melon. She obtained a paralegal degree from Pierce College in 2013 and will receive her master’s in public policy (MPP) from Temple University this May.

Outstanding Pro Bono Advocacy Award

This award pays tribute to private bar associations, attorneys, law firms, and judges who have ensured access to justice for Pennsylvania's underserved communities through the provision of pro bono services or by increasing funding for civil legal aid.


Winebrake & Santillo, a Philadelphia-based firm specializing in employment law with a focus on wage and overtime claims for workers, is being recognized for its outstanding pro bono support, exceeding the requirements set by the class action residual distribution rule in its advocacy for civil legal aid in Pennsylvania.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania amended the state's Rules of Civil Procedure, mandating that no less than 50% of class action residuals in a Pennsylvania court case be directed to the Pennsylvania IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts) Board, the primary funder of civil legal aid services in the state. The funding allocated to the Pennsylvania IOLTA Board supplements future grant awards to legal aid organizations within our Network and statewide.

Over the span of a decade, Winebrake & Santillo directed an impressive $261,148 in class action residual distributions to the Pennsylvania IOLTA Board. This amount is an excess of the mandated 50% allocation, underscoring their unwavering commitment to upholding justice and ensuring equitable access to legal resources.

Their exceptional financial support has been pivotal in sustaining crucial legal aid services, particularly during a period marked by historically low IOLTA revenue due to prolonged low interest rates. In total, their contributions amount to $392,949, derived from over 30 court cases spanning Pennsylvania, federal court, and arbitration proceedings.

Central to their pro bono ethos is their dedication to cy pres cases, which resonate deeply with the clients served by the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network. Their dedication to fighting for workers' rights, ensuring fair wages, and recovering compensation for deserving families mirrors the network's overarching goal of advancing justice and equity through civil legal aid.

Moreover, Winebrake & Santillo's advocacy extends beyond financial contributions to encompass strategic partnerships and collaborative efforts. They have consistently provided invaluable advice to the legal team of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, particularly in litigating consumer cases. In addition, they have co-counseled numerous cases alongside Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and were honored with an award at the prestigious Breakfast of Champions event.



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