Over the course of 38 Saturdays in 2014, 286 volunteer attorneys met with 353 low-income Atlantans via the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer Foundation’s Saturday Lawyer Program.
Most of these clients – over 80 percent of them – came to us because of problems with their landlords: lack of repairs, unreturned security deposits, illegal evictions. These clients included Ms. Murphy, who told us that she slept with cotton balls in her ears to keep out the cockroach infestation while she slept. They included Ms. Watson, whose landlord ignored her complaints about the cracking, sagging ceiling – until the ceiling caved in on her and damaged her neck. The remaining clients were evenly split between unpaid wage issues and consumer debt disputes.
A significant majority of the clients who came to AVLF’s office on Saturday mornings successfully found legal help. 70 percent of the 353 Saturday clients were accepted by attorney volunteers for further representation. Of that group, more than 80 percent were accepted by the Saturday morning screening attorney. These volunteers sent demands to the deadbeat landlords and employers, negotiated for their clients, and – when necessary – filed lawsuits to enforce the law.
The numbers above show that the Saturday Lawyer Program is a vibrant success, matching impoverished clients in desperate straits with bright, energetic attorneys with a passion for justice.
But the statistics reveal other truths that warrant consideration. For example, in 2014, one third of the clients scheduled for Saturday appointments at AVLF’s office did not show up for their appointments. The reasons varied. Some clients could not get the time off work, or had health emergencies, or couldn’t afford transportation. Many of these were able to reschedule their appointments. Others simply did not show up, and AVLF never heard from them again. Presumably, some were able to resolve their legal problems on their own, but others may have simply given up.
At the same time that AVLF celebrates the success of our Saturday Lawyer Program in 2014, we must ask: who was not at the table? Mr. Roberts, whose recent brain surgery rendered him homebound, was not able to get help making a reasonable accommodation request to his landlord. Ms. Patton, whose agoraphobia and anxiety keep her close to home, missed two appointments before her phone was disconnected. Mr. White’s boss told him that if he missed one more Saturday at work, he would be fired.
Who else was not at the table? The 286 Saturday attorney volunteers in 2014 represented just one percent of active Georgia lawyers. This was the case even though two-thirds of Georgia lawyers – about 20,000 people – practice in the five metro Atlanta counties, close to AVLF’s office. Unquestionably, many of those attorneys performed pro bono work for other organizations and clients. But others put off pro bono commitments for another year, another time.
In 2015, the Saturday Lawyer Program invites you to help fill the empty seats at our table. We will strive to reach out to even more struggling Atlantans, to get them the help they need. We will brainstorm about ways to improve the scope and efficacy of our Saturday morning clinics. And we invite every lawyer reading this newsletter to join us on a Saturday – and to tell your colleagues and friends about AVLF’s work. In 2015, we renew our commitment to our clients, and we look forward to working alongside you.