In Service

Poverty Touches Us All, but We Can Help

, Daily Report

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Michelle Mersey is a commercial finance associate at Parker Hudson Rainer & Dobbs.
Michelle Mersey is a commercial finance associate at Parker Hudson Rainer & Dobbs.

Poverty touches all of us. We see drifters holding cardboard signs as we exit the freeway. We pass the homeless emerging from overnight hideaways as we drive to work. We greet the night shift as they enter offices to empty the trash and scrub our toilets.

Some of us notice the listless look in the eyes of the person behind the counter when we buy our lunch, of the elderly man who shines shoes in the lobby, of those waiting for the buses we pass in our cars, and in these moments we catch a glimpse beyond the outward symbols of poverty and inside a reality we do not engage.

Even though we live differently, we all see, we all know, many of us remember and feel, and we are all left with the choice of what to do with our experience of poverty.

As lawyers, we can engage poverty with crucial technical skills and authority not available to the rest of the community. By standing up for the people who need our help, we provide a respite from the physical and psychological strains of poverty that devastate our will to live. Many clients come to us for help in the face of the obstacle that will break them unless we choose to share their burden.

Consider the vulnerability of my current client, struggling to keep her job and care for her children, ill from breathing the mold growing in their apartment because the landlord refused to patch the roof and rainwater runs down the walls. She cannot afford a security deposit for another apartment, and does not qualify for assistance programs. Without help, the children's health will continue to deteriorate, their education will suffer, medical bills will mount, the client will lose her job, and what little stability this family had will be lost.

They will be embattled in a struggle for survival no matter the outcome of their housing crisis, but my assistance with this problem might preserve precious energy that will be the difference between whether or not they overcome the others that inevitably await them.

If we acknowledge our experience of poverty and choose to act, we still need a community to act with us. The core of our pro bono community is the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF), which calls on us to both recognize and embrace our position as the safety net, the last resort for Atlantans who need legal help but will not get it without us. The AVLF's volunteer programs are designed to support and enable any lawyer, regardless of seniority, expertise or access to institutional resources, to succeed when we answer their call.

In my experience as a volunteer with the Saturday Lawyer Program, working on an AVLF-referred matter requires about three hours a week, and my first matter was resolved within five hours total.

That is not to say there are no obstacles. In the pro bono sphere, we face a critical lack of funding for court fees, housing inspections and other resources needed to bring a matter to conclusion. Those of us in private practice must also negotiate the application of law firm procedures designed for corporate representation to clients with different needs, who suffer while they wait for our conflicts checks to clear.

Those of us in private practice also have access to resources with which we can do immeasurable good. At Parker Hudson, I have the support of the commercial finance partners who value community involvement, the guidance of Nancy Baughan and Bill Holley, the assistance of Cynthia Redeaux-Grimes and Shelly Wilson, and Tiffany Johnson, brilliant second year litigator willing to help a transactional attorney through her first encounter with a Magistrate Court.

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