For the Greater GoodBy: Holly Cline
Emory Law Alumni Serve Their Communities
“I believe that the legal profession is a service profession. All attorneys take an oath when they are admitted to the bar to make sure they understand that being a member is an incredible privilege that comes with great responsibility.” — Professor Frank S. Alexander, Sam Nunn Chair for Ethics and Professionalism
Professor Frank S. Alexander is a strong advocate of public service. Throughout his career, he has worked with many nonprofit organizations, offering legal services to help find ways to eliminate or revitalize vacant properties.
“The legal profession is unique in its obligations to the common good,” says Alexander, general counsel for the Center for Community Progress. “As lawyers, we have a responsibility to use our time and talents to provide access to justice to those that may not have it or to seek a formulation of the law that serves the greater good.”
Through the Center for Community Progress, Alexander is addressing the country’s growing need for assistance with vacant properties, which the foreclosure crisis has compounded. As a professor, he has motivated many students to actively participate in the public interest sector.
With support from Alexander, other faculty, staff and alumni, Emory Law has increased programs and course offerings that focus on public interest law to expose more students. The student-run Emory Public Interest Committee provides opportunities to participate in public interest activities and has helped elevate interest.
“EPIC is the backbone upon which we’ve built the structures and moving parts of public service at Emory,” Alexander says. “It fosters a true sense of community where we support and learn from one another.”
Several Emory Law alumni say Alexander inspired them to pursue a career in public service, including Ruth McMullin 00L.
“Frank Alexander is so passionate about the work he did on housing issues. His eyes would light up when talking about it,” McMullin says. “He encouraged those of us interested in public service to take the leap and follow our passion.”
That passion, along with support from the mentoring program, epic and the student body, led McMullin to the DeKalb County Public Defender’s office. She began as a third-year student and celebrated her 10th anniversary this fall.
“People who can’t afford lawyers should still have someone who is competent to serve them,” she says. “It’s not their fault that they are poor. They should not have to pay the consequences of not being represented.”
McMullin represents juveniles charged as adults and facing life in prison. She also assists in major felony cases with complicated dna or forensic evidence.
“When some people see my work, they are shocked to find out I’m a public defender. Unfortunately, the public perception is that we’re lazy, but we work hard and are good attorneys,” she says. “I find it rewarding to effectively litigate for someone and hopefully change some of those perceptions and stereotypes.”
McMullin’s classmate, Stephen Chen 00L, is familiar with such stereotypes. The summer he spent with the Department of Education’s general counsel gave him a new perspective.
“My time with the general counsel got me excited about government practice. I worked on really challenging legal issues with a professional staff that took its work seriously,” Chen says.
Now senior counsel for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, he advocates for equal access to education by ensuring that educational entities receiving federal funding comply with federal civil rights laws.
“I believe deeply that one can dramatically affect social change at the intersection of law and education,” Chen says. “We often investigate cases that involve people who may not have the resources to pursue any other form of legal recourse.
“On a larger scale, many social justice movements started in schools and universities,” Chen says. “There is such a rich legacy of civil rights in education… I love that the goal of our work is to make society and this country better, more just and more equitable.”
Answering a calling
Through the American Bar Association, Bucky Askew 67L also takes a systematic approach to improving legal services for all. As the aba consultant on legal education, Askew ensures that accredited law schools are in compliance with aba standards.
“Our efforts are aimed at quality assurance and consumer protection and help lead to improvements to legal education over time,” he says. “Lawyers and judges founded the aba because they were worried about training and educating lawyers of the future. Today, aba-accredited law schools are viewed as the best in the world.”
Askew’s entire career has been in public interest thanks in part to the third-year requirement to work at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
“For many of us it was our first exposure to the lack of legal services available for the poor and the problems they faced because of that,” he says. “It opened many of our eyes to the inequities and what a lawyer could do to help. … Legal representation is very powerful in helping individuals solve everyday problems.
“There has been tremendous growth in clinical education and skills training in legal education. In fact, the ABA now has a standard requiring schools to offer substantial opportunities for pro bono participation,” he says.
Askew also is noticing that many peers who don’t practice public service full time volunteer their services pro bono, particularly those at larger private firms. Debbie Segal 79L runs Kilpatrick Stockton’s pro bono practice. Over the last 10 years, she has observed a shift.
“Pro bono work has become a more formal part of a law firm culture,” she says. “Firms all have their own cultures and expectations of how their lawyers will work in the community. Kilpatrick Stockton created my position to help make pro bono opportunities more accessible. Giving back through pro bono is now infused in our culture.”
Pro bono work has helped raise morale among attorneys and has been great for professional development, Segal says. “Young lawyers get to run a case and be a decision-maker earlier than they would with other firm cases. It also fulfills their desire to give back.”
She advocates for Emory Law students to explore opportunities in public service. A member for the epic advisory board, Segal credits the program as being a major force in creating awareness and interest in this sector of law.
“It’s important to expose students to public interest when they are deciding what career path to follow,” Segal says. “Through that exposure, they may decide to practice public interest law full time or to incorporate pro bono work as part of their practice. To learn, as a student, how it feels to help someone in need is powerful.”
Sharon Hill 85L, who also serves on the EPIC advisory board, agrees. After working for two large firms, Atlanta Legal Aid and as a juvenile court judge, she serves as executive director for the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which connects top private practice lawyers, corporate counsel, law schools, civic leaders and other professionals to address social problems at their root causes.
“To me, public service work allows society to ensure that everyone gets service. If competent legal service is only rendered to those that can pay, we’d leave out a lot of people,” she says. “It’s helpful to have a sector of attorneys dedicated to those who can’t pay; otherwise we’re not providing the same level of service.”
Hill finds the nonprofit environment more nimble at pushing through change than the government sector.
“I enjoyed my work with the government, but to the extent that I wanted to change the way things are done, it was hard,” she says. Her efforts through Georgia Appleseed have produced results.
“We go deep and look at the root cause of issues, working with lawyers and other professionals to help be part of the answer,” Hill says. “By addressing certain injustices, even those not directly impacted can still benefit.”
As a prosecutor in New York City, Neal S. Cohen 03L learned of the impact he could make on an individual basis. Another Alexander mentee, Cohen served as epic president and helped to re-launch Emory’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program.
“I have always enjoyed helping people,” he says. “I joined a firm after graduation and learned a great deal, but it wasn’t my true calling, so I went to the da’s office. In the courtroom, I learned how to present facts and litigate and gained a great deal of confidence.”
Now with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Cohen applies his courtroom skills to helping protect the public from unsafe products under the agency’s jurisdiction and is making an impact on a national level.
It’s the right thing to do
Like Cohen, Aaron Mason 96L acquired great courtroom experience. He began as a state court prosecutor, before joining the Attorney General’s office. Now, he serves as the new Clayton Court state judge.
“After practicing law in the public sector for 14 years, becoming a judge was a natural progression,” he says.
“I never thought people would be so interested in what I do, but I’m grateful to know that I’m having an impact beyond the courtroom,” he says. “It is proof that public service helps the legal profession by reminding the community that we share common interests. Also, it’s the right thing to do.”
A former clerk for then federal Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Alison Barkoff 99L, shares Mason’s sentiments. After clerking, Barkoff joined the U.S. Department of Justice and gained hands-on litigation experience with disability law. She applied those skills at the nonprofit Bazelon Center for Mental Health.
“The nonprofit world is filled with really passionate people who are committed to helping people and making a difference on a local or even global level,” Barkoff says. “Government work provides you with the opportunity to help others and have a huge national impact with federal support.”
This difference is why Barkoff returned to the Justice Department. She is continuing the work she started with Bazelon, but with federal resources. She maintains a deep belief in the justice system and the mission of enforcing civil rights laws.
“Without engaging in public service, certain protections and laws are not effective. Whether it’s individual or systemic, public service humanizes the justice system and emphasizes its importance,” she says. “I work with a marginalized group of people who deserve access to the same opportunities to live as others do. My work helps make other’s lives full and meaningful, which is why I do it.”
A similar desire to help others led Cheri Tipton 97L to Atlanta Legal Aid. She started as a staff attorney with the Senior Citizens Law Project and had what she classifies as her most profound moment as a lawyer.
She was helping her client fight a guardianship petition. During a home visit to investigate the merit of her client’s case, it became apparent that the woman did need a guardian.
“She kept insisting is that she had performed opera in some famous venues. I was skeptical. As I was leaving, she asked if I wanted to hear her sing. I was a young attorney, but for whatever reason, I had the good sense to listen,” she shares.
Her client then beautifully belted out an aria from Madame Butterfly.
“The confusion that once clouded her eyes was replaced with clarity. I gave her legal advice, but she provided me with the gift of being present while she connected to the part of herself that was still competent.”
Tipton says her experience that day is the reason she is still with Atlanta Legal Aid. “The system can only survive if there exists a possibility that the playing field is capable of approaching level.”
Julie Mayfield 96L became a lawyer to create a more level playing field. After working with Amnesty International and the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Mayfield decided she could be a better nonprofit and human rights advocate with a JD.
After helping lead the Turner Environmental Law Clinic, she served as vice president and general counsel for the Georgia Conservancy, working on water, air, quality growth and coastal policy issues. Now executive director of Western North Carolina Alliance, Mayfield uses her legal expertise to influence ordinances and policies. She also helps the alliance chapters interpret environmental law.
“In the nonprofit world, there are two different levels: direct service or policy and advocacy,” Mayfield explains. “One focuses on helping one person at a time and the other promotes systemic change that improves lives overall. Both provide an opportunity to make big changes in people’s lives and the world, which is why I work with nonprofits.”
Nonprofits do the best job advocating for people and the environment, Mayfield says, adding she always knew she’d end up working for one. Alexander knew it, too.
“When I graduated, I took a job with a firm,” Mayfield says. “Frank told me I had three years. I lasted two and a half at the firm and was working with a nonprofit soon after.”
Mayfield and other alumni follow Alexander’s advice. Whether they focus entirely on public interest law or offer their services pro bono, they take on the responsibility that comes with the privilege of practicing law.
Holly Cline is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.List: <- Back to: News Releases