How Students Opened a Door for Legal Aid
In theory, helping indigent clients with their legal needs while providing experience to lawyers-in-training is an idea that few would oppose.
In reality, the story of how UVA Law helped bring legal aid to Charlottesville and surrounding areas, essentially founding the Legal Aid Justice Center, now in its 50th year, involved some resistance, even as it garnered support.
The center is among the oldest continuously operating legal aid programs in the state and has been a public-service training ground for many a UVA Law student. When its precursor, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society, was incorporated in March of 1967, it was the first legal aid referral system for the indigent in the Charlottesville area.
“Absent the initial research of a determined group of law students last year and the hard work of the local bar’s five- man special committee, a legal aid society in Charlottesville would never have materialized,” read a Feb. 9, 1967, editorial in the Virginia Law Weekly.
Legal aid was not a new concept, however. Many big cities and their law schools had long had programs that provided legal help to the poor, often allowing students to pitch in under the supervision of practicing attorneys. Then, in 1965, the federal Office of Economic Opportunity widened the scope, adding 269 legal service programs around the country.
Like other progressive ideas of the time period, some embraced the concept of legal aid, while others felt it threatened the status quo.
In Charlottesville, where numerous residents were below the poverty level of $3,000 a year in income, research indicated “a crucial need for free legal advice to the very low income families in this area, families who often have substantial legal problems but are reluctant to seek advice because of fear, pride, ignorance or economic hardship,” a March 10, 1966, article in the Law Weekly reported.
Dean Hardy Cross Dillard ’27, who was known for being socially conscious, wanted to see if some legal aid arrangement would work locally.
“He was very enthusiastic,” said Gail Starling Marshall ’68, whom Dillard asked to visit other law schools and societies to see how their programs worked. Marshall would go on to teach at the Law School for four years; become a partner at Hogan & Hartson, a firm with its own pro bono department; and be named head of civil litigation for Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry. In addition to those jobs, she would be recognized over time for her pro bono efforts in the areas of fair housing, the environment and parolee rights.
But before she achieved her professional standing, while doing the research for Dillard, Marshall discovered she was working on a project that was unpopular with many Virginia alumni.
“There was a lot of opposition from alums,” Marshall said — although they were not all alumni practicing in the Charlottesville area, she noted. “I think there was a cadre of sincere and dedicated people in the Charlottesville bar who saw something needed to be done to level the playing field. But the major concern from alumni was we would be taking away business from other lawyers who were practicing. And of course the answer was easy, in that these were cases that no one really wanted. They were not lucrative cases at all.”
In the spring of 1966, law students made their initial pitch to the bar for a local organization that would provide free legal counsel to the indigent in civil cases, with some of the advice meant to be preventative, it was reported.
While an early vote by the bar’s executive committee gave the plan its unanimous recommendation, some alumni opposition remained. Complicating matters, Dillard was exiting the deanship to serve on the World Court. Incoming Dean Monrad Paulsen was new to the job and nervous about offending alumni and rocking the boat with the Board of Visitors, Marshall said.
“The institution of the University and of the Board of Visitors was very, very, very conservative,” she said. “If you just look at the occupations of people in those positions, at least during that period, they were heads of banks, heads of large corporations, and they saw this as against their interests.”
After a year of study, however, the bar unanimously accepted the committee’s report recommending the proposal. The Law School wasn’t responsible for running the new entity, which helped address alumni concerns, Marshall said. Students would only be allowed to do basic work, conducting preliminary interviews and setting appointments, at the discretion of a board. Furthermore, the cases weren’t expected to have much impact beyond the individual clients involved.
Soon after that approval, the society ran into opposition again when it tried to file its articles of incorporation with the state. An attorney with the State Corporation Commission denied the society’s first request, arguing that the articles were too broadly written.
“It has been decided that you must follow the model form verbatim before a charter will be granted,” the letter read.
The society revised their articles of incorporation, which were notarized on March 28, and recorded at the State Corporation Commission in Richmond on March 30.
The committee gave special credit to Marshall and Hayden Curry ’67 for seeing the project to fruition. David S. Fitzpatrick, Thomas G. Livesay and Wallace C. Winter, of the Class of 1967, and Peter F. Windrem, Class of 1968, helped research the idea as well.
Myron P. Simmons ’68 was the first student director on the society’s nine-member board, which had two student spots. Windrem was assistant director. The board reserved six seats for bar members, with one appointed by the Law School’s dean.
Law students were eager to take part as volunteers. Windrem told the Law Weekly that participants in the student group, the University of Virginia Legal Aid Society, had to be limited to 40 students in order to ensure everyone got enough value out of the experience. But because 70 students were interested, the society conducted a tryout process.
During his 1L summer, Winter had worked at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, the oldest legal aid program in the country. He returned and proselytized about the value of such programs, including while as editor of the Law Weekly.
“That summer got me interested in doing that kind of work,” said Winter, who would go on to become a supervisory attorney at the Chicago office. “I ended up doing it for 38 years. After I came back from the Peace Corps in Brazil, that was basically the only job I had until I retired.”
The Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society Inc. office opened in the summer of 1967 at Court Square. The society provided legal services in the areas of domestic relations, landlord-tenant disputes and employment, among others. Students worked at the office in pairs on weekday afternoons, on a rotating basis. Every member of the local bar under age 60 was expected to serve as a supervising attorney on site, also on a rotating basis. But Marshall said that requirement was most likely “aspirational.”
In those early days, the office wasn’t as exciting a place to be as students might have imagined. Hugh Macgill ’68 recalled there being a lack of awareness about the service among potential clients, and something of a stigma to the work itself among practitioners.
“Business was not too good,” Macgill said. “A lot of times nobody would come. This was a new thing and not entirely a welcome thing. But it was not necessarily a bad thing, so people put up with it. Any kind of pushback was inevitable.”
Macgill went on to work on a school desegregation case in Georgia, in neighborhood services and, later, as a law professor at the University of Connecticut, culminating in his deanship there. “Legal aid probably put a spin on a career that might not have been there otherwise,” Macgill said. “I implemented a number of programs at my law school that did stem from that initial experience.”
The society received federal funding in 1970, the same year the UVA student group changed its name to the UVA Legal Assistance Society. In time, the legal aid office would build its clients and take on paid employees to supervise the work of students.
Ron Tweel ’71 was the second lawyer hired to oversee their work — and the first to take a more ambitious approach, including attempting class actions. He was fresh out of school, working at an annual salary of $9,000.
“I became pretty much the office for a couple of years,” Tweel said. “We established our credibility with the local bar and the local judges. I wore a coat and tie every day. We were not seen as real lawyers by some of the clients, so establishing credibility was important.”
He added, “Judges hated us in the 1970s.”
The office built a reputation by filing more cases, and, Tweel said, by being more prepared. He said the biggest case he handled was a lawsuit on behalf of welfare applicants. The case, heard in a Richmond federal court, involved seven named plaintiffs and seven causes of action.
“It was basically me against five lawyers — me and a law student tried this case; he was like one year out of law school,” Tweel said. “I was scared to death. Fundamentally, we won the case. I probably wasn’t a good lawyer at the time, but we outworked them.”
Now with the Michie Hamlett law firm in Charlottesville, Tweel still runs into former clients from time to time. “When you represent someone, and you do something for them, they remember you. It’s very gratifying.”
How the Legal Aid Justice Center Has Made a Difference
Because of the nature of the world as it existed before digital record- keeping, it’s almost impossible to quantify the impact that the Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society and the Legal Aid Justice Center has had on Virginians over the past half-century.
Here’s one measure, however: Since 1996, when Congress applied its most recent restrictions on organizations that receive funds from the federal Legal Service Corporation, the center has closed a total of 38,895 cases, impacting 76,849 lives.
Those cases generated more than $43 million in judgements, awards and services for clients, and prevented the loss of more than $17 million in assets or services.
The center serves clients at 125 percent of the poverty level. Last year, the average client had an income of $13,000 in a year.
Another way to judge the impact has been through cases that have challenged the constitutionality of laws and policies, and through legislative and social reform.
One case that had a major impact was Harris v. Bailey (1982). Legal aid attorney Brock Green ’75, now a partner at Jones & Green in Charlottesville, challenged the garnishment of a woman’s bank account by the University of Virginia Hospital for an unpaid bill. Because the account contained only Social Security payments, Green successfully argued that the Virginia garnishment statute was unconstitutional. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia then entered an injunction prohibiting all creditors in the state from using the garnishment statute until it was rewritten by the legislature to protect people with exempt income.
The center’s list of ongoing initiatives include efforts to help children, immigrants and refugees, the formerly incarcerated and those who need legal assistance in healthcare matters, among other concerns.
“To me, what’s really special about us is our model is not just helping people who walk in the door, as important as that is,” Executive Director Mary Bauer ’90 said. “And it’s not just looking down from a fancy ivory tower and coming up with ideas to fix things. It’s marrying those two things. Our efforts to fix systems are deeply informed by the communities we’re serving and working with.”
In addition to helping vulnerable populations, Legal Aid has been a consistent employer of public-service minded graduates of the Law School throughout the years, including several Powell Fellows.
A group of Charlottesville attorneys and law students establishes the Charlottesville Albemarle Legal Aid Society in response to the acute need for a program of civil legal assistance to those who could not pay for services. Staff and local pro bono attorneys provide free legal services with funding from the national Legal Services Program.
The society receives its first federal-era funding for legal aid from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity.
Outreach services begin to rural counties of Nelson, Greene and Louisa.
Legal Aid receives its first funding from the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County for provision of legal services to the poor.
Volunteers from Boyle and Bain, a private law firm, provide advice to Legal Aid clients one afternoon per week, establishing the pro bono model still in use.
The U.S. Congress drastically reduces federal funding for legal aid providers nationwide and imposes significant restrictions on the representation of low-income clients. The society begins to examine its options to continue serving the full range of legal needs of low-income families.
The society assists in the creation of Piedmont Legal Services, a new corporation with an overlapping board, to receive all federal funds that can be used for cases that fit the new federal guidelines. The board charges the society with responsibility to find new sources of revenue to continue operation to address issues that fall outside of the federal guidelines.
The society launches two programs, Just Children and the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers, which become an integral part of its mission.
The Legal Aid Justice Center conducts a capital campaign to purchase and renovate the Bruton Building at 1000 Preston Avenue in Charlottesville to serve as the headquarters office for the four offices in Central and Northern Virginia.
The Legal Aid Justice Center dedicates the Charles B. Holt Rock House, restored with community support, to serve as headquarters for a pro bono project with the firm of Hunton & Williams, and installs a garden and walkway that commemorates Charles B. Holt and the era in which he lived.
The Legal Aid Justice Center celebrates its 40th anniversary of providing legal services in Central Virginia.
Two signature programs at the Legal Aid Justice Center — the JustChildren Program and the Immigrant Advocacy Program (formerly, the Virginia Justice Center for Farm & Immigrant Workers) — celebrate their 10th anniversary.
The center launches the Civil Rights & Racial Justice Program to focus on the criminalization of poverty.