Volunteer Story: When Landlords Fail, Pro Bono Counsel Steps In

Ms. Travis was a low-income single mother in Fulton County who was thrilled to sign a lease and pay a deposit on a new apartment. But when she moved in, she discovered that the unit had no running water, no functional electricity or appliances, and no working door locks. She reported the problems to the landlord, whose response was essentially “too bad.” He refused to repair the unit or release Ms. Travis from her lease. She reached out to the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation for help, and I accepted the case pro bono.

Countless tenants in the Atlanta area reside in appallingly uninhabitable apartments and houses. Their landlords many times blatantly violate Georgia law by failing to make repairs or keep premises in livable conditions. But because the tenants typically cannot afford attorneys, the landlords’ violations often go unchecked without intervention from civil legal services agencies. Limited resources, however, prevent full-time legal aid attorneys from taking every case.

Many of us in the private bar hear these sob stories, agree that they are unfortunate, and then continue to do nothing about it. Volunteer opportunities such as AVLF’s Saturday Lawyers Program make it easy to change that. Simply by virtue of their legal education, all Georgia attorneys have the tools to volunteer with AVLF to fix some of the devastating situations that indigent tenants face.

Through the Saturday Lawyer Program, I have helped several low-income local residents recover damages from unscrupulous landlords and get repairs to their dilapidated homes and apartments. When I accepted Ms. Travis’s case, she and her children were living in a motel in addition to paying rent for the uninhabitable apartment, stretching her already precarious financial resources to their limit. After I made a few phone calls and sent a demand letter to the property management company, they agreed to repair the apartment, reconnect utilities, and refund the client for her motel expenses. It was a few hours of work to help someone who otherwise would have literally been out in the cold, and Ms. Travis’s gratitude was unforgettable.

Clients like Ms. Travis have made me a better attorney. AVLF cases allow me to act as lead counsel and coordinate strategy in a way that I cannot as a law firm associate. Communicating with emotional clients in desperate situations has taught me to procure information sensitively while also being efficient and thorough. By asserting claims for clients, I see cases from the perspective of a plaintiff’s attorney, which has helped me understand opposing attorneys’ motivations in my civil defense litigation work.

Beyond the practical benefits, volunteering for AVLF’s clients is also a reminder of the injustices that so many people face. It is unfortunately easy to become cynical and jaded in our day jobs, and I welcome the reminder of why many of us went to law school.

The rules of professional conduct tell us that we should aspire to provide legal services to people who are unable to pay. It can sound like a chore. But volunteering with programs like AVLF’s Saturday Lawyer Program makes the duty to perform pro bono work a rewarding experience.