Volunteer Lawyer Stories
A lawyer helps a disabled young man prepare for the future
Georgia Legal Services Program volunteer lawyer Donell Samuels handled a Social Security case on behalf of a child with disabilities. She successfully concluded a favorable decision for the client and changed a life along the way.
Ms. Samuels accepted from the Piedmont Regional Office of GLSP the pro bono case of a 19-year-old high school senior, "Michael." He suffers from autism and Asperger's Syndrome. He has been under an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at his school and has been receiving services at McIntosh Trail. Michael was abandoned by his parents some time ago, and his 78-year-old grandmother has been raising him ever since.
In 2014, Michael received notice from the Social Security Administration that his SSI benefits would be terminated. Typically, children receiving SSI benefits receive cursory reviews from the Social Security Administration when they near the age of 18 that almost always result in termination of benefits. A lawyer is often required to press the case for continuing disability and continued benefits. Michael's grandmother assisted him in filing an appeal of the cessation decision with SSA. Ms. Samuels stepped in and volunteered to provide representation in his appeal.
Her successful representation resulted in Michael remaining eligible for continuing benefits until at least the age of 22 because he has an IEP and is receiving other work-skill development services. The continuing benefits allow Michael to learn work skills to help him meet the many challenges that lie ahead.
Donell Samuels is the founder of the Samuels Law Firm. She concentrates her practice in the areas of social security, personal injury as well as criminal defense. Ms. Samuels obtained her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Georgia State University and Juris Doctor from Texas Southern University, Thurgood Marshall School of Law (summa cum laude).
After volunteering for numerous organizations while in law school, Ms. Samuels realized her legal career would focus on serving the underserved and disenfranchised population. Ms. Samuels says her commitment to public service derives from her strong desire to advocate for individuals who legal needs would not be met due to financial insufficiency.
Nelson Mullins attorney works with nonprofits
As a lawyer with over 20 years of experience in labor and employment law, business litigation, consumer financial services litigation and appellate work, Michelle Johnson has represented an impressive list of for-profit entities. Perhaps most inspiring of all, though, is Michelle’s unwavering commitment to put her experience to work for clients in the nonprofit sector as well.
Michelle is a frequent volunteer with Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta (PBPA), which pairs Atlanta-area attorneys with nonprofit organizations in need of legal assistance. She has counseled nonprofits on employee handbooks, terminations and layoffs, the proper use of independent contractors, exempt/non-exempt classification and responding to EEOC complaints. According to Rachel Spears, executive director of PBPA, Michelle’s understanding and application of the law is always reliable and she has an uncanny ability to remain professional and even-keeled in even the toughest situations.But where Michelle truly shines is in her interaction with those from the nonprofit world without a legal background.It’s there, in client meetings and conference calls, that Michelle effortlessly explains complex, foreign concepts in a manner that leaves her nonprofit clients relieved.As Rachel puts it, “Michelle demonstrates an extensive knowledge of each of her practice areas, but also the ability to transmit that knowledge to clients with no familiarity with those topics.She takes her representation very seriously and treats her pro bono clients the same as her best-paying clientele.”
Michelle, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough LLP, received her Bachelor of Arts in English and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. She went on to Emory University School of Law, where she served as Notes and Comments Editor of Emory Law Journal and graduated with distinction. In 2013, she was named Attorney of the Year by Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta. Today, in addition to dedicating her time and talents to PBPA, Michelle serves on the board of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence and was recently named a Fellow in the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.
Julie Roach, lawyer and director of volunteer services for the Georgia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, shares the story of how one volunteer matches his skills and interests with the legal needs of artists and arts organizations.
Atlanta volunteer lawyer Mark Baker is a truly outstanding Attorney Member at Georgia Lawyers for the Arts. He has supported the arts community by taking on six cases for our organization over the last year. Mark practices in Theatre and Dance, Real Estate, Book Publishing and Literary works, Contracts, Copyright, Film and TV, Licensing, Music, Trademark and the Visual Arts and has put these specialties to use helping our low-income artist clients across a wide range of legal issues and artistic disciplines.
Mark helped a visual artist fulfill her dream of holding art classes and workshops within the unrented side of a duplex she resides in by consulting and advising her regarding Fulton County's zoning requirements for a home-based business. This kind of dedication to the arts helps Georgia artists start and grow their businesses in a struggling economy while avoiding high legal fees that would usually keep consultation and advisement out of reach. This artist, Dawn Martin, raved about Mark's services, remarking that, "Mark was so helpful and thoughtful. I really enjoyed working with him. He gave me valuable advice and tips to ensure my success and followed up with a phone call and emails to check on my progress and make sure I was taking all the correct steps. I feel very lucky to have worked with him and really appreciate his willingness to share his expertise."
Mark also took on contract drafting and review cases for performing artists of all disciplines and ages. When a local non-profit orchestra was in need of a contract to protect their interests at venues across town, Mark stepped up to the plate once again, donating $1,000 worth of legal services by preparing a form contract to be utilized by the orchestra for their future performances. The selfless work donated to assist the orchestra benefited more than 30 musicians. Additionally, Mark agreed to review a management contract for a minor-aged actor and singer, exhibiting his dedication to protecting the rights of artists both young and old.
Demonstrating an impressive breadth of knowledge and expertise, Mark also volunteered to assist a low-income client in need of trademark registration for his emerging graphic t-shirt design company's name and logo. Through his work with Georgia Lawyers for the Arts and, most importantly, our artist members, Mark has demonstrated his willingness to support our arts community time and again. Without dedicated volunteer attorneys like Mark Baker, our mission of providing pro bono assistance to artists in need could not be met!
Rural Alma lawyer goes on the road for pro bono
William J. “Sam” Edgar, a former State Court judge of Bacon County, is reaching his 10th anniversary as a volunteer lawyer for Georgia Legal Services Program. Along the way, the former judge has racked up many miles in rural southeast Georgia meeting pro bono clients and representing them in court.
Edgar practices law in Alma, Ga., the national blueberry capital and the county seat for Bacon County. The per capita income for the city is $11,574. About 27.6 percent of families and 32.3 percent of the population live below the poverty line, including 48.7 percent of those under age 18 and 24.2 percent of those age 65 or over, according to census information.
Edgar began by helping the low-income clients of the Brunswick Regional Office of Georgia Legal Services with a “Free Wills Day” Clinic in Waycross, Ga., and then began taking on individual cases in several rural counties in southeast Georgia, including Appling, Bacon, Charlton, Coffee, Jeff Davis, Pierce and Ware Counties. Over the years, Edgar has handled a range of cases, including family law, consumer and seniors’ legal issues in an area of the state where low-income households are many and lawyers available to handle poverty law cases are scarce. There have been occasions where he has done home visits to the elderly when it was necessary to help them with their case.
Edgar has also participated in the annual Waycross Oak Street Festival where he volunteers his time to do free on-site legal consultations.
Elouise Clinch, Georgia Legal Services’ veteran pro bono coordinator in Brunswick, is grateful for Edgar’s pro bono service. "Everyone should have equal access to the courts," says Clinch. "Volunteers like Sam Edgar help our Program extend equal access to the courts to low-income Georgians. Even though Sam’s schedule is busy, he has always found time to handle one more case. We are extremely proud to have him as a volunteer!
Sara Totonchi, executive director of the The Southern Center for Human Rights, shares the story of one of SCHR's volunteer lawyers, Lawrence J. "Larry" Bracken, a partner in Atlanta's office of Hunton & Williams LLP.
In his pro bono work, Larry zealously advocates for some of the most disenfranchised, marginalized and voiceless communities in Georgia. His dedication to justice and fairness are abundantly evident as he represents many people and causes pro bono. Larry is pro bono co-counsel with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR). Since 1976, SCHR has defended individuals sentenced to death, represented people in prison and jail detainees subjected to inhumane conditions of confinement, and otherwise responded to requests for help from those who have been wronged, abused, tortured, injured and denigrated by the criminal justice system in the South.
Larry is the type of lawyer who relishes a chance to bring the promise of hope into the most hopeless places. He does so with palpable excitement and a thirst for justice. In the last few years, Larry has served as co-counsel with SCHR in two federal civil rights cases involving the rights of prisoners. In Nwakanma v. Clark, Larry represented a group of men who were subject to retaliatory beatings by prison officials. The handcuffed and unresisting men were taken to an isolated location where they were assaulted until they lost consciousness and two suffered serious injuries. Larry took an active and "hands on" role in this case. He helped to investigate the allegations, even taking the time out of his busy schedule to drive to visit the lead plaintiff at Augusta State Medical Prison. He spent hours reviewing documents and discussing case strategy with SCHR lawyers. Larry also led the settlement negotiations, providing the benefit of his years of experience in resolving cases to our clients. He ultimately resolved the case with a damages settlement and an agreement that the state would provide and pay for appropriate medical care for the clients.
Not long after the Nwakanma case ended, Larry again agreed to be counsel in MacClain v. Owens, a wrongful death action brought on behalf of the family of a man who was murdered at Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga. MacClain was the second of four prisoners killed in a seven-week period at a prison with a very high rate of violence, and where many cell door locks had not worked for years preceding the death. Larry has been a wonderful colleague to SCHR co-counsel in this matter, always making himself available to strategize and talk through thorny legal and ethical issues. We always know that when Larry "signs up" for a pro bono case, he will be fully engaged and involved for as long as it takes, which is a great service to our organization and our mutual clients. We are especially grateful for Larry's strongly held belief that our indigent clients should receive the same caliber of representation as the paying clients of the firm.
These lines represent merely the tip of the iceberg of Larry Bracken's contributions to the Southern Center for Human Rights and our clients. Larry's tireless struggle for the disenfranchised, his passion for the law, his commitment to our community, and his complete legal brilliance inspire all of us at SCHR to aspire to be even a fraction as effective and generous as he is.
Von Dubose, a partner at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, LLP, talks about his pro bono work with the Georgia Justice Project.
Mickey Mixson, a senior partner in our law firm introduced me to the Georgia Justice Project—Mickey has spent much of his time and resources with the Georgia Justice Project. GJP’s staff and volunteers defend people accused of crimes, and win or lose, they stand with them while they rebuild their lives. GJP offers free legal services coupled with a full range of social and employment services.
After coming aboard with GJP and meeting the people associated with the organization and learning their level of commitment to this work I was blown away. I then learned about the organization itself and how they work with the clients and their families. I think the support the organization provides to the families of its clients is tremendously impressive.
With success in the private sector comes a corresponding obligation to commit our money, resources and expertise to the pro bono community. It’s a holistic approach. There is an obligation as an attorney to be as Charles Hamilton Houston once said a “social engineer.” There has to be some balance in one’s career. Lawyers in particular are uniquely suited to assist in this arena.
My service on GJP’s board has only confirmed what I already knew. I come from a middle class family. My mother worked as an educator to provide for us. We were well-clothed, fed and educated. However, we still struggled financially. That being said, I’m from Alabama and I’ve seen firsthand what GJP clients face and have family who’ve gone through it. It’s not a foreign issue for me. It’s great to know there are resources here in the Atlanta area addressing this and that this organization exists.
The legal community in the Atlanta area has gone above and beyond to help. It’s been very responsive. One of the best ways the legal community can support is to translate “why it’s important to support this effort” for the larger professional community. People need to understand that this work and its implications are much more in-depth than what appears on the surface. GJP must expand its support base beyond the legal community. The messaging needs to be addressed to the society as a whole. The “why it’s important to support this type of bro bono work” is the challenge for GJP.
I want the community to know there is phenomenal leadership at the Georgia Justice Project—across the board from its staff to its long-time board members. It’s rare to see this level of commitment and professionalism. The people associated with this organization are just phenomenal.
The Truancy Intervention Project is proud to highlight the volunteer efforts of Jennifer Thomas, a volunteer attorney with the law firm of Jones Day LLP. Jennifer has been a volunteer with TIP since 2010 and has represented seven clients as a TIP attorney. Originally from Atlanta, Jennifer earned her undergraduate degree from Southern Methodist University. She received her law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. while serving as managing editor of the Howard Law Journal. After returning to Atlanta, Jennifer began looking for ways to use her newly acquired legal skills to give back to her native city. She found TIP through the recruiting efforts of TIP board member and Jones Day partner, Rick Deane, and 2011 Volunteer of the Year winner, Tasheika Hinson, formerly of Jones Day LLP.
"I have always worked with kids, and when I heard about TIP, it just seemed like a natural fit," said Jennifer. "I really love that I am able to use my legal skills and help children and the community at the same time."
"Jennifer is an ideal volunteer; she is dependable, detail-oriented and very dedicated to the children and families of Metro Atlanta," notes Jessica P. Pennington, the executive director of Truancy Intervention Project Georgia.
A corporate attorney with a focus on banking and finance, Jennifer has spent time inside and outside of the courtroom successfully advocating for her clients. Her very first case involved a client who had suffered through a sexual assault. Jennifer expertly brought all parties together and was able to get the truancy case dismissed and her client back on the right track. After more than a year of the case being dismissed, Jennifer is still involved with her client. This summer, Jennifer helped her client get a job at a dance studio close to her school with the hopes that her client would be able to continue her employment during the school year.
Jennifer is an avid recruiter for TIP and has taken over duties as TIP's Jones Day Liaison, helping to cultivate and mentor volunteers within Jones Day. We applaud Jennifer for her dedication to TIP and more importantly the children and families of the city she calls home.
Anne Myers has been practicing law for over 25 years. Currently, she practices in her own firm located in Peachtree City. She is a trained mediator and arbitrator. Over the years, she has clerked in the federal courts, worked in government agencies, practiced in large law firms and provided in-house representation to local companies.
Her true passion is assisting low-income clients in family law cases - especially those clients who would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney and have a fair shot at justice as a result. She has demonstrated this passion through her committed delivery of pro bono services to low income Georgians through the Georgia Legal Services Program pro bono project. Anne believes that "as lawyers, we have a duty to use our talents and knowledge to help those who cannot get access to legal help. If all lawyers would just commit to taking a few cases a year, we could vastly improve the legal system in this country." Her willingness to accept complex pro bono cases and her zealous advocacy always exceeds the call of duty.
Anne has been accepting pro bono cases from GLSP since 2007. Over the past five years, she has accepted nearly 30 pro bono cases referred by GLSP. She has completed extensive pro bono work from other referral networks as well. Her work typically focuses on assisting victims of domestic violence and their children in emotional and contested family law cases. Her clients frequently comment on the high quality representation she provides and her hard work to ensure that all families have access to a lawyer. Thanks to Anne's work, many more women, children and families in Georgia are safer and able to live in households free of violence.
As Assistant General Counsel of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., Rick McMurtry oversees trademark, advertising, and domain matters for Turner brands such as CNN, Cartoon Network and TCM, Turner Classic Movies.
What sets Rick apart from many of his in-house peers is his strong commitment to pro bono work. "I enjoy being able to help charitable organizations and work with avaried number of clients with various interests and people."
Through Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta, Rick has dedicated his time and talents to complete 20 pro bono projects for nonprofit organizations in Atlanta on issues ranging from trademark registration and infringement to domain name protection. Nonprofits that have benefited from Rick's legal assistance include Enchanted Closet, which provides prom dresses to low-income girls, and Positive Impact, which helps those that have been diagnosed with HIV. Jill Robbins of Soccer in the Streets, a current pro bono client of Rick's, says, "he is eager to share his knowledge and makes it his mission to protect the interests of his pro bono clients."
As Rachel Spears, executive director of Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta states, "As head of the trademarks group at Turner Broadcasting, Rick brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the pro bono matters he takes. But beyond that, he shares his personal brand of kindness and humor that puts the client at ease."
Rick graduated from Belmont University in 1991 and then studied at Vanderbilt University School of Law where he served as Senior Student Writing Editor of the Law Review. Following law school, he was honored to serve as a judicial clerk for Judge Robert Echols with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. Prior to joining Turner, he worked in private practice at Howrey & Simon in Washington D.C., and Powell, Goldstein, in Atlanta.
When it comes to pro bono and access to justice, small-city lawyers have a unique perspective. They understand the demand for pro bono services from a solo and small firm angle. And as solos and small firm practitioners, they are frequently called upon to help in their communities. In a small town, there are no high-rise building elevators or security desks to separate a lawyer from people with critical legal needs who can't afford a lawyer.
Our Volunteer Lawyer of the Month for April is a very accessible lawyer in a small firm outside Atlanta: Michael Geoffroy.
Michael is a partner in the firm LaMalva, Geoffroy & Oeland, PC, in Covington and Conyers, where he handles estate planning, corporations and civil litigation matters. Prior to joining the firm, Michael served as corporate counsel at Telrite and as an associate at Moulton & Tarrer in Conyers.
A graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, Michael has become a leader at the state and local bar levels. In 2011, he was included in Georgia Trend Magazine's Legal Elite for General Practice. He is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia Young Lawyers Division, a position which he used to promote legal aid, pro bono and access to justice causes. He serves as a volunteer lawyer for Georgia Legal Services Program, but his work on "the bigger picture" - helping to increase awareness of the need for better funding and other support for legal services programs - provides a great model for other lawyers and law firms.
"Michael's support for the work of Georgia Legal Services is broad and deep, and started when he got involved with disaster legal assistance with GLSP, a program the State Bar YLD has supported for over 15 years. He understands and shares our commitment to justice for all, and has made pro bono work a priority for his law firm," says Phyllis Holmen, GLSP's executive director. "Michael talks often and in public about how doing pro bono work has been a life-changing event for him."
In March 2011, under Michael's leadership, the State Bar of Georgia Young Lawyers Division dedicated its annual fundraiser to Georgia Legal Services. The purpose of the annual Signature Fundraiser is to raise funds to support a non-profit selected by the YLD's board of directors. This year, the fundraiser raised more than $45,000 to support Georgia Legal Services' mission to provide free legal assistance to low-income Georgians.