Meanwhile, she started working on a law degree in 2009 at Georgia State University, also her husband's alma mater, and learned about "unbundled" legal services in a seminar on making family law services accessible.
The idea caught her attention.
By offering unbundled services, where lawyers provide general advice or perform specific tasks instead of handling a case from start to finish, she realized she and her husband could make family law more affordable for more people.
They initially tried offering a la carte services at The Manely Firm. It didn't work, they said, because the firm's lawyers, used to providing full service, were not comfortable with performing a more limited role.
"The unbundled service concept turns on its head the notion that the lawyer is in charge," said Michael Manely. Instead the client decides what he or she needs help with.
"One client might feel comfortable talking to a judicial officer in court but is not comfortable doing discovery or writing an answer," he said. Another might want a lawyer to do the talking for her in court.
"It was such a radical paradigm shift that it was hard to do," said Shelia Manely, who expects to finish law school in the spring.
And so they decided that they needed a separate space for a la carte family law.
The Manelys opened a downtown branch of their firm a couple of years ago in the Capitol City Bank Building at 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive S.E. in Atlanta. They decided to lease the building's vacant storefront for the Justice Café.
They recruited Luis Velez, a 2010 GSU Law graduate, as the Justice Café's executive director. Although Velez is a new lawyer, he has more than 20 years of experience working for nonprofits, foundations and government programs assisting low-income people and children in the court system.