Toward a Common Good

Recent School of Law initiatives reflect renewed interest in serving the community

By Allison O. Adams

While studying at the Emory School of Law, Holly Lanford '86Ox-'88C-'92L spent two years in a work-study assignment with Georgia Legal Services and an internship with the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. Those experiences helped prepare her for a career in public interest law. After graduating, she worked for two years with the Georgia Housing Finance Authority, which helps find affordable housing for low-income Georgians. Lanford then joined Atlanta Legal Aid, where she provides services in family law for indigent clients.

"I love what I do," she says. "It's very important to me to feel like I'm making a difference, helping folks who would otherwise not be able to afford legal assistance."

Lanford is among the many students, faculty, alumni, and staff of the law school who in recent years have shown a renewed interest in working for the public good. "More students today seem to have an understanding that the law is a means to the end of improving society, not just a way to quick riches," says law school Dean Howard O. Hunter.

Several recent initiatives have encouraged Emory law students to make public service a part of their careers. What follows are profiles of three such efforts.


Speaking up for children

Every year, more than two thousand cases of child abuse and neglect are reported in Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett counties. Because of limited funds, each of those counties can assign only two lawyers to the heavy caseloads. "The attorneys don't have the time or resources they'd like to devote to each child," says Julia Day '95L, director of the Fulton County Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. CASA screens and trains community volunteers to serve as voices for children's best interests until their cases are resolved.

Each year since 1992, the Child Advocacy Project of the Emory law school has selected about ten law students to receive CASA training. The students work full time during the summer with child advocate attorneys or juvenile court judges, combining their legal skills and CASA training to give more personal attention to the cases of abused and neglected children.

The students investigate cases, represent children in court hearings, and monitor cases' movements through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. They often interview children and their families and write motions and briefs under the direction of attorneys or judges. The students also meet weekly for seminars and visits to area agencies involved in the juvenile justice process, such as the Grady Hospital unit for babies born addicted to crack cocaine.

According to Jan Pratt, administrative professor for field placement and the Child Advocacy Project's director, "It puts a human face onto a process, and the students learn a lot about the practical side of how these cases are handled. Law is a service profession, and part of educating Emory lawyers ought to be to teach them that being a lawyer involves using their legal skills for the benefit of the community."

"It was one of the best experiences I've ever had because it provided a good look at the whole [juvenile justice] system, particularly as it pertains to abused and neglected children," says Day, who became interested in a career in child advocacy when she participated in the project after her first year of law school.

Andre Johnson, a third-year law student who participated in the program in 1996, worked in the DeKalb County Juvenile Court. "The problems here seem insurmountable, but if I can do a little bit of good each day, maybe I'm making some small difference," he says. "This program has helped me rededicate myself to the idea of using my law degree to help people."


Legislating shelter

In 1995, the Georgia General Assembly unanimously passed legislation that enabled community organizations to lay claim to tax-delinquent properties and transform them into quality low-income housing. "It was the most sweeping legislation ever of property tax foreclosure laws," says Professor of Law and Carter Center fellow Frank Alexander. "We should be able to funnel a thousand properties per year into affordable housing this way."

The legislation was drafted by a team of Emory law students who were taking Alexander's seminar on federal housing policies and homelessness. Students in the course may receive additional credit in a program that involves hands-on work with Alexander on projects addressing homelessness in Atlanta.

In past years, students have helped Alexander develop the City of Atlanta-Fulton County Land Bank Authority, a public agency that purchases abandoned properties and makes them available to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity for renovation. Others have joined Alexander in his work with The Atlanta Project, The Carter Center's urban revitalization program. And many students have volunteered to staff the after-hours hotline at the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. "It's an incredibly powerful experience for my students to say to a woman with a baby when it's thirty-five degrees outside, `I'm sorry, there's no place for you,' " Alexander says.

"We learn far more from our work than we are able to contribute to those with whom we are working. Actually trying to figure out where people are going to live, how somebody on minimum wage can afford to rent an apartment--these things give a depth and breadth and richness to our understanding of the laws and housing policies."

Pro bono on line

An attorney browsing through the World Wide Web pages of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) might come across this notice:

Three elderly clients are seeking representation in individual cases arising out of `purchases' of security systems from the same company. Each client has potential claims for fraudulent sales tactics, unfair or deceptive practices toward the elderly, and violations of the Truth in Lending Act.

Thanks in part to the Emory School of Law, Atlanta attorneys now have greater access to volunteer opportunities such as this one. AVLF and another non-profit legal organization, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society (ALAS), recently received space on the law school's Internet site to establish home pages and discussion lists.

"An Internet presence enables these organizations to publish all of their materials and solicit volunteers and donations on-line," says Eric Ogrey '95L, who works for the Atlanta firm of Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue. Ogrey coordinated the effort among his firm, the two organizations, and the law school.

Web site users also have access to Emory's MacMillan Law Library Electronic Reference Desk, an index of virtually every law-related Web site. "Legal research can be time-consuming, cumbersome, and expensive," says Ogrey. "An on-line service can do this research in a fraction of the time, but these services cost hundreds of dollars an hour and are beyond smaller organizations' means."

Both organizations provide pro bono representation in civil matters for low-income clients in the Atlanta area.

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