Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Meet Maggie Hanrahan, New AVLF Board Member

Maggie Hanrahan is a partner with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., a national labor and employment law defense firm. At Ogletree, Maggie regularly counsels and represents clients across the country on a variety of labor and employment law matters. This commonly includes defending class and collective action lawsuits; conducting national wage and hour audits; defending employment discrimination lawsuits and charges; and drafting employment policies and agreements. Maggie’s practice also focuses extensively on assisting clients with independent contractor issues, including drafting independent contractor agreements, advising on independent contractor-related issues, and representing companies in connection with misclassification audits conducted by federal and state administrative agencies.

Maggie feels extremely honored to be joining the AVLF Board. Maggie fell in love with the mission immediately after attending the PurShoeing Justice event and learning and hearing more about the different services offered by AVLF. In particular, Maggie looks forward to getting more involved with AVLF fundraising efforts and the domestic violence program. Maggie also believes the domestic violence program will be an excellent way for younger lawyers in her firm to get involved with the community and will do all she can to maximize her firm’s volunteer efforts for AVLF.

Hot Town, Summer in the Safe Families Office (Interns Getting Dirty & Gritty)

The hard work of our interns and volunteers is what makes the Safe Families Office possible. Their diverse backgrounds and shared commitment to victims and children are what make the Safe Families Office so dynamic and effective. This year's summer class is no exception. 

Megan Gordon (right) chose to spend the summer before her 2L year at Emory with AVLF because of her dedication to issues of violence against women here and abroad. Prior to law school, Megan spent a semester at the School of International Training in Rwanda. Her piece, The Battlefield on Women's Bodies: Comparing the Causes of Mass Rape in the Genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, was just published in Auspex, Warren Wilson College's interdisciplinary journal of undergraduate research.

Allison Murphy (left), an Emory 2L, wins the prize for most interesting resume entry in this year's intern class. Among her many impressive credentials, one really caught our eye - puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts. We're excited about the creativity and resourcefulness she brings to her new role working with clients on a walk-in basis at the courthouse. 

Juli Crider (not pictured) is one of those exceptional people who manages to work full-time and attend law school part-time at John Marshall Law School. On top of school and her job at Hedgepeth, Heredia, Crumrine & Morrison, she is also interning at the Safe Families Office one day per week, and already her experience and ability to multi-task is serving her (and us) well.

Danielle Walker (middle), a 3L at Emory, can't wait to represent SFO clients in court under the supervision of Liz Whipple, thanks to the Third-Year Practice Act. In addition to her law school obligations, which include the Emory Corporate Governance and Accountability Review and the Child & Family Law Society, Danielle has dedicated an immense amount of time to the judicial campaign of Jane Barwick. Danielle also spent last summer interning and volunteering with the Fulton County Family Division, so she brings some valuable courthouse experience to the Domestic Violence Project.

One Step Toward Justice

By: Cole Thaler, AVLF Director of Housing and Consumer Programs

Mrs. Thomas twisted her fingers nervously in her lap. We sat at the kitchen table in her Vine City home, collection notices and court papers spread out before us.

“I wanted to pay the credit card bill,” she told me. “I knew I owed it, and I knew I was supposed to pay. I just didn’t have the money.” Mrs. Thomas called for legal help after she went to the bank to withdraw money and learned that her account had been frozen because of a garnishment.

She pushed back from the table and stood up, grimacing, holding the back of the chair to steady herself. Her degenerative spine disorder was getting worse, she told me, and I could see the effects of chronic pain in her rail-thin frame and stooped shoulders. Then Mrs. Thomas looked in my eyes and said, “My daddy would be so ashamed of me. He earned minimum wage his whole life, but was still able to buy a nice house for us to live in. When he owed money, he paid it. I feel so embarrassed.”

I shook my head. “It’s not your fault, Mrs. Thomas.” Over time, the buying power of minimum wage has dropped dramatically. According to a 2014 report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is 22 percent below its peak value in the late 1960s, after adjusting for inflation. Today’s minimum wage is only about 30 percent of the average wage of production workers and non-managerial workers, compared to 50 percent in the 1960s.[1] Income inequality – the ocean between the very poor and the very rich – has gotten far worse in the wake of the Great Recession.

When Mrs. Thomas’s father was a working man with a growing family, the minimum wage was enough to provide for a family. Today, a family of four with both parents working full-time minimum wage jobs will earn $30,160 annually – barely over the federal poverty level.

Mrs. Thomas herself had worked for many years, until her spinal condition made work impossible. Now she lived alone and received Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits of just $976 per month. On that impoverished income, she could no longer afford to pay her rent, utilities, medical copays, and credit card minimum payment, and so her credit card went into default.

Mrs. Thomas blamed herself for not being able to achieve the “American Dream” that her father had attained, back when the minimum wage was nearly a living wage. She blamed herself for being too sick to keep up with the payments on her 28% interest rate credit card. And she even blamed herself for the garnishment, until I explained to her that SSDI benefits are exempt from garnishment under federal law, and that the bank blatantly violated that law when it froze her account. With strong legal representation, Mrs. Thomas got the garnishment dismissed and recovered all of her frozen funds.

I came to work for Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation so that I can help low income people like Mrs. Thomas take a small step in the direction of justice. As AVLF’s new director of housing and consumer programs, I ask you to take that step with me. A single good lawyer with an ounce of compassion can change a life. A city full of good lawyers with a taste for justice can change the world. Please join us.

[1] CBPP report available online at

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How to Respond to “Better”

By: Marty Ellin, Executive Director

Long before government officials confirmed that America was in a recession, the staff of AVLF knew. Before Congress debated bailouts, earlier than the foreclosure crisis grabbed the media’s attention, and prior to the dramatic jump in the unemployment rate, the number of phone calls to AVLF asking for help with urgent legal problems began to climb dramatically.

Anticipating that grants to the Foundation would be fewer, the AVLF Board nonetheless made a very conscious decision to sustain the breadth of our pro bono programs and to draw down our financial reserves as necessary to assure that there was no interruption to the services offered to our clients. Because of that decision, and because the Atlanta legal community increased its pro bono participation, we were able to maintain the core programs that provided legal support to those who otherwise had no access to counsel. Along the way, we did have to close certain non-core programs and reduce the size of and benefits to the staff. At the end of 2012, we had come close to spending all of the Foundation’s reserve.

And then, things got…better. Slowly, but noticeably. As the economy began to improve, funders began to start grant cycles again. As law firms and corporations moved away from the anxiety of the previous years, they became increasingly generous. Thus, in 2013 AVLF began to restore some of our reserve, and 2014 has started well.

What, then, do we do with “better”? Perhaps our Board President, Elizabeth Finn Johnson, put it best when she told us it was time to consider not just how to survive, but how to thrive. She and our rather extraordinary Board of Directors have encouraged a discussion that focuses not on limitation but on growth. We have begun to expand meaningful pro bono opportunities for the legal community and to broaden our development plans to return to a healthier financial position.

But amidst this optimism and the Foundation’s surging prospects, we are aware that the requests for legal assistance from those who cannot afford a lawyer have continued to grow. Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the greatest demographic increase of the last years are formerly middle class people who have lost jobs, lost homes, and along the way have lost most of their hope.

At AVLF, we remain upbeat about our prospects for expanding service to those in our community with unmet civil legal needs. We remain optimistic about regaining a steady financial footing. But we remain very aware that although things are better for the Foundation, they remain frightening, Long before government officials confirmed that America was in a recession, the staff of AVLF knew. Before Congress debated bailouts, earlier than the foreclosure crisis grabbed the media’s attention, and prior to the dramatic jump in the unemployment rate, the number of phone calls to AVLF asking for help with urgent legal problems began to climb dramatically.

“Worse” meant “try harder.” As it turns out, so does “better.” Thank you for joining us in this effort.

AVLF Welcomes Jeff Nix as Newest Board Member

Jeff Nix, one of the newest members of the AVLF Board of Directors, is partner at Troutman Sanders LLP. For the past twenty-five years, he has focused his practice entirely upon construction law representing stakeholders involved in every facet of the construction industry. Prior to attending law school at Boston University, he worked as construction engineer. This background allows him to offer a fresh, unique and pragmatic approach to helping clients solve problems ranging from negotiating simple agreements to resolving large complex multiparty disputes.

Jeff is an ardent supporter of the firm’s pro bono initiatives. He started the firm’s Wills Project, which provides wills and other estate documents for individuals battling cancer, service members and their spouses (including members of the military, police, fire, and EMTs), and elderly and low-income Atlantans. He also routinely represents tenants through AVLF’s Eviction Defense Program. Jeff has been recognized for his outstanding pro bono service by both the State Bar of Georgia as recipient of the H. Sol Clark Award and by the Atlanta Bar Association as recipient of their Service Award. An alumnus of the 2003 Class of Leadership Atlanta, Jeff has also assisted in the building of more than 50 Habitat for Humanity homes over the last 30 years.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The New Faces at AVLF

The New Faces at AVLF

Carey Kersten
Carey Kersten is AVLF's new Development Director. A native of South Texas, Carey has lived in Atlanta for nearly five years and was most recently a part of the technical proposal writing team at AirWatch. Prior to that, Carey worked at Sutherland in the client and professional development department.

Carey holds Bachelor's and Master's of Arts degrees in English and Technical Communications from Texas State University, and she has over ten years of business development and marketing experience. She has run eight marathons (but keeps promising to quit) and loves to read and travel.

Cole Thaler 
Cole Thaler joins AVLF as our Director of Housing and Consumer Programs. Previously, he worked as a supervising staff attorney with Georgia Legal Services Program, where he represented low-income rural Georgians in cases including unemployment benefit appeals, protective orders, eviction defense, and food stamp appeals. In 2011, he won an injunction in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia requiring a public housing authority to lower the rent it was charging his disabled client.  
From 2005 through 2009, Cole worked for Lambda Legal, a national legal organization that works on behalf of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and those with HIV. As Lambda Legal's transgender rights attorney, Cole litigated a number of federal court cases around the country that advanced the rights of transgender people, including prisoners and youth.  In 2009, he received a Stonewall Bar Association award recognizing Outstanding Service to the Stonewall Community.
Cole co-authored "Serving All Communities: Providing Respectful and Competent Services to Low-Income LGBT Clients," published in the January-February 2014 issue of Clearinghouse Review:  Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. He was the lead author of "A Seat at the Table: Justice for SNAP Recipients Accused of Fraud in Georgia," published in Clearinghouse Review's September-October 2012 issue.
Cole received his bachelor's degree magna cum laude from Williams College and his J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law.  

AVLF's New Creditors' Bankruptcy Program Goes Undefeated

Great news! Serving as an AVLF volunteer attorney, you have helped your client win her case - or are on the verge of doing so - against the slumlord (or recalcitrant employer, etc.) that took advantage. But uh oh, the scoundrel claim-debtor has filed for bankruptcy protection, and you know nothing about the bankruptcy process.

More great news! In partnership with the Bankruptcy Law Section of the Atlanta Bar Association, AVLF has established the Low Income Creditors Assistance Project (with the catchy acronym LICAP). Now, sophisticated bankruptcy practitioners will take these matters on a pro bono basis for AVLF clients holding claims or judgments where the defendant-debtor's files for bankruptcy.

LICAP is already a success. AVLF Saturday Lawyer program client Mr. D, a hardworking and highly skilled chef working for an unscrupulous restaurant owner, eventually had to quit because the owner kept underpaying him. In the end, the employer withheld his last few paychecks and Mr. D ended up out about $3,000 in wages - wages that were hard-earned and desperately needed to support his family.

Mr. D's case was first assigned to Taylor Tribble, an amazing attorney from Huff, Powell & Bailey. When her well-written demands were ignored, Taylor did not hesitate to file suit and fight for her client. Before a judgment could be obtained, the employer filed for bankruptcy, but only after transferring assets and fully staying in business. 

For too many years and in too many cases, a defendant-employer or landlord's bankruptcy filing marked the end of the road for AVLF clients; bankruptcy court was just not a forum with which we or our volunteers were familiar and the filing itself suggested hope for any collection on a judgment was lost. As AVLF's ground-breaking judgment collection project - Dollars for Judgments - has grown, we have seen even more judgment-debtor employers and landlords file for bankruptcy as they ran from our skilled collection attorneys. Those collection efforts typically stopped at the bankruptcy court door.

This is no longer the case. Bankruptcy Section Chair Alison Elko Franklin (who also helped develop the project with AVLF), of McKenna Long & Aldridge, teamed with top-flight accounting firm FTI Consulting - another AVLF partner under this program - to take on the inaugural LICAP case, filing a proof of claim for Mr. D. After one eventful and entertaining Creditor's Meeting in the bankruptcy court, the employer-debtor's attorney approached Alison about a settlement, and Mr. D was paid, in full and much faster than any traditional collection efforts would have achieved. While it is tempting to stop with this undefeated record, AVLF is excited to push forward with this new innovative program - and new cases are already in the wings! Alison and FTI have set the bar pretty high, but we are confident this project will continue to produce similar results and, in any event, will always make our clients know that no stone was left unturned in our efforts to get them justice. 

When clients show up at AVLF, they are often paralyzed by their circumstances; you can hear it in their voices. One volunteer recently reported that when she called her client after the successful collection on her judgment, she could literally hear the change in her client - the paralysis was giving way in favor of the start of a better future for her and her family. Through AVLF and the Bankruptcy Section of the Atlanta Bar Association's Low Income Creditors Assistance Project (LICAP), we have hopefully removed yet another barrier to getting all of our clients some justice and hope for a better future. To learn more or get involved, please contact our Deputy Director, Michael Lucas, at    

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pro Bono Service: An Honor, Not a Burden
By: Nilufar Abdi-Tabari,
Nilufar Abdi-Tabari is a family law attorney
practicing in Roswell, Georgia.  She volunteers every
Monday for the Domestic Violence Program
of the AVLF in the Safe Families Office, aiding victims of
intimate partner violence to obtain Ex-Parte and
Twelve Month Protective Orders
Attorney at Law

“Don’t worry! I’m happy. I’m happy because I am finally free.” In a surprising reversal of roles, I realized “T”, my client, was trying to comfort … She must have seen the tears I had tried to blink away.
For almost a year, I have been spending my Mondays at the Safe Families Office in the Fulton County Courthouse, where clients are provided assistance in obtaining Ex-Parte and Twelve-Month Protective Orders for intimate partner violence. It was on one of these Mondays that I had the privilege of meeting T, a beautiful young woman with a bright smile and a bubbly sense of humor.  The story behind that smile is one that will forever resonate with me.

In T’s case, the abuse began sixteen years earlier, when her mother gave the abuser access to T in exchange for drugs. Since then, T had endured years of extremely violent physical, emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of her abuser, a man 18 years her senior. Today, as a liberated woman, the countless scars and bruises on her body provide a road map to her previous years of physical abuse.

The scars on her ankle direct us to the episode of her jump from a second story window in a vain effort to escape her knife-yielding abuser, only to break her ankle when she landed, leaving her unable to escape. Her abuser then took her back into their home and kept her there for three weeks, waiting for the bruises on her body to heal before taking her to the hospital to be treated for her broken bones. The faded bruises on her neck lead to her eventual escape, a desperate run to a local post office after forty-eight hours of constant physical abuse. This journey of abuse and violence culminated in T’s arrival at the Safe Families Office, a refuge and place of aid for women in T’s situation.

As she finished her story, she looked at me and smiled. Against all odds, T was experiencing happiness because, for the first time in 16 years, she was free from abuse—regardless of the journey that lay ahead of her, she had successfully left her past behind. I could feel her joy and hope shining through the fading bruises. In that moment, I realized what a privilege it was to be able to stand beside her and provide some ease, comfort and assistance as she sought a protective order.

Through this encounter and many more like it, I have come to realize that providing pro bono services to the many victims that come through the Domestic Violence Program of the AVLF in the Safe Families Office is not only an invaluable service to these clients, but also a remarkable honor for me as a young attorney. At the Safe Families Office, I have found both a community of colleagues and friends among the many amazing attorneys with whom I have had the honor of working. And on occasion, I have been blessed by the comforting word and smile from those most in need of the same.

Even a $500 Win Can Change Lives 
By: Andre Ross
Associate, Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton
Reprinted with generous permission of the author and the Daily Report 
Published 01/13/2014

Over the past 18 months, I have been fortunate enough to assist with two matters for the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, both of which came to a successful resolution, and one of which was particularly meaningful in my career as a young attorney.

In June 2012, I participated in AVLF's Saturday Lawyer Program, which connects legal professionals with low-income individuals. I met a woman who had been evicted from her rental home after the landlord failed to pay the mortgage and the bank foreclosed on the property, leaving her scrambling to find housing. Despite causing the foreclosure and eviction, the landlord then refused to return the client's $500 security deposit. I agreed to help the woman recover her security deposit.

Working in a big law firm, it can become east to lose sight of the forest for the trees. For many people working at a law firm in Atlanta, poverty is an abstract concept. For better or worse, it is what we glimpse out the windows on the way to the airport, or what we read about in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I am as susceptible to this critique as anyone, but I have come to see that AVLF is an avenue by which those of us who are more fortunate can understand, in a real and powerful way, what it means to have less, and, more importantly, what we can do to assist others.

The case I handled for AVLF, although a dispute over only $500, meant the world to my client. To her, with no steady source of income, the security deposit was the difference between being able to pay her bills and having the lights shut off. After rounds of demand letters, the case went to trial in July 2013, with the landlord-defendant choosing to hire counsel rather than pay the $500 my client demanded. After a bench trial, the court awarded my client her full damages, recognizing that she was the victim of a scheme to take advantage of someone perceived as ignorant and helpless. As we left the courtroom with her young son in tow, she hugged me enthusiastically and thanked me for spending my time and energy on her "little old case." That kind of client feedback is what AVLF brings to being a lawyer in Atlanta.

AVLF's Saturday Lawyer Program, like its many efforts around the metro area, helps give context to what it means to be an attorney. It allows those of us with the resources and acumen to work within the system to help those who lack those same skills and opportunities. To many who read this, $500 is nice to have but not necessary. To those such as my client served by AVLF, $500 can truly mean the world.

I learned firsthand that being a resource to those who otherwise have none is rewarding on both a personal and professional level, and it is the kind of feeling that everyone should ensure is part of their practice. AVLF is how you make that happen.

Read more:

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

AVLF Announces Michael Lucas as New Deputy Director

AVLF is proud to announce that Michael Lucas has become the new Deputy Director of the Foundation.

Michael Lucas, AVLF Deputy Director
Michael has worked with AVLF for four years, and two years ago became the Director of Housing and Consumer Programs. In that span, Michael has done especially remarkable work with AVLF’s signature program, the Saturday Lawyer Program: under Michael’s cogent and enthusiastic direction, the Saturday Lawyer Program is the strongest it has ever been in the 40 plus years of its operation. In 2013 alone, more than 250 volunteer lawyers counseled more than 350 clients on a Saturday morning on housing, wage claim and debt defense matters and dispensed more than $250,000 of free legal services to low-income members of our community on Saturday alone – saying nothing of the significantly greater amount of work done on the cases after Saturday when those attorneys accepted cases. 

Michael started the AVLF Dollars for Judgments Program by encouraging the State Bar Creditor’s Rights Committee to join AVLF in an effort to collect judgments secured by or on behalf of AVLF clients; he was also instrumental in the founding of the new LICAP (Low Income Consumer Advocacy Program) Program that will send experienced practitioners into Bankruptcy Court in adversary proceedings on behalf of AVLF clients who are judgment creditors. Michael also directs the AVLF/Atlanta Bar Association Estate Planning & Probate Section Probate Information Center, and related AVLF substantive pro bono programs.

Moreover, Michael is a delightful person with whom to work, has a wicked sense of humor and is widely well respected in the Atlanta legal community. With his energetic and passionate approach to every interaction (sustained, somehow, through the sleep-deprivation period brought on by the birth of his and wife Lauren’s two daughters, Maya and Zoe), Michael continues to present the very best of the Foundation, and as a Staff we look forward to Michael’s leadership. Our congratulations to our wonderful colleague and new Deputy Director, Michael Lucas!