As the Deputy Director of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) Michael Lucas uses his master’s degree in social work just as much as his law degree. His background mirrors the mixing of social justice and legal proceedings that make up the marrow of their work. As a nonprofit galvanizing an army of attorneys, AVLF ensures all Atlantans have safe homes and families.
Through the tireless efforts of their social workers and volunteer lawyers, AVLF has made a difference in the lives of vulnerable Atlantans for 36 years. We caught up with Michael, who shared with us why AVLF is an awesome place to work, how free legal services result in greater community justice, and what our city can do to help.
Tell us about the history of AVLF.
We are the largest provider of pro bono legal services in Atlanta. Our full-time job is to inspire, recruit, train and supervise private attorneys as they provide top-tier legal services at no charge. We are able to serve so many clients across Atlanta thanks to all the attorneys who want to do good through volunteerism. We were created in 1979 because no matter how many amazing attorneys Atlanta Legal Aid or any of the other similar organizations have, no one can ever keep up with the unmet legal need across our city. Our model is to take, for example, a King and Spalding tax attorney and turn him into a landlord tenant attorney for at-risk families for as long as that case lasts.
A lot of what we do sprang from the Saturday Clinic which was created by Atlanta Legal Aid and others about 41 years ago. The Saturday Clinic is still ongoing, though we have greatly expanded on it. But no matter how much we grow, almost every Saturday we still host 7 to 15 attorneys who meet with our clients and help them navigate the legal process.
AVLF is great because we are nimble and non-bureaucratic. That ease of work comes from our diversified funding that makes it easier for us to take risks. Our volunteers are huge assets, as well; we are able to cover a lot of territory and serve a lot of people because of them.
What are the major issues that AVLF focuses on?
We have two core programs: our domestic violence work and tenant representation.
Domestic violence work is something we have done for a long time but we have really been building up in the past few years. We run the State of Georgia’s only courthouse-based and lawyer-staffed safe haven for survivors. We are able to do that though working with Partnership Against Domestic Violence which provides shelter and safety planning across the region. Together we run the Safe Families Office inside the Fulton County Courthouse.
We had over 2,900 visitors to that center in the past year. Almost everyone who visits the Safe Families Office leaves with a 30-day protective order. If survivors proceed in their cases to extend their protective orders, we provide free legal services from lawyers at the best law firms across the city. These attorneys help the survivors throughout the whole process – and we recently added a social worker to our staff to help with things as small – but important as – helping them make it to their hearings or building their confidence.
We are also the largest provider of tenant representation in the city and that happens mostly through our Saturday Clinics. For tenant cases, obviously it’s bad for children to be facing eviction or to be living in an apartment with moldy walls – everyone understands that. But it goes deeper than that. We have seen that even one or two evictions during a school year completely disrupts a child’s education and impacts the likelihood of graduation. We also see this issue manifest itself in health; an incredible number of our cases revolve around mold in an apartment that the landlord is not addressing. That wrecks havoc on a kids health and can result in long-term school absence due to hospitalization. Tenants have rights – to not be evicted for no good reason, or to not be forced to live in uninhabitable premises. That is where attorneys come in. Those rights are nearly impossible to enforce without an attorney.
How do you decide what is the most important?
We try to focus on what we think are the most fundamental issues for ensuring stability. Basic shelter for low-income folks – and being safe in your own home are pretty fundamental. And by focusing, we are able to go a lot deeper in the way we serve our clients.
The other piece of how we choose our target issues is looking at what works for volunteer attorneys.
We also keep learning about the fundamental issues we address and how they relate to bigger issues in this city. For example, there are a lot of schools in Atlanta, like where we work in Thomasville Heights, that have 40% enrollment turnover annually. It is not a coincidence that Thomasville Heights is across the street from a complex that has eviction rates through the roof. We saw what was going on and – thanks to some important partnerships – put two staff right in the neighborhood to try to help turn the tide. We were able to get lawyers to help lower eviction rates and force rental repairs so kids aren’t sick when they are at school. There is such a deep connection that runs from legal representation straight to stability and justice in our community.
How can Atlanta support AVLF?
We always need volunteers. You don’t have to be from one of our big partner firms; we love having folks from large firms to solo practices at something like the Saturday Clinic. There is a clear tab on our website that has information for volunteers and we are able to respond to inquiries right away. There are so many ways that lawyers can make a difference in terms of the stability and health of our community.
We also need donations. Even though the lawyers are donating their time, there is still a huge need for staff and structure. It takes a large operation to provide meaningful services for attorneys and clients on such a large scale. You can head over to our donations page to help us change Atlanta today.
If you know a lawyer who would be interested in volunteering or a family in need of services click here. Keep up with AVLF’s legal practice by following them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.
Photos are property of AVLF.