Jamie McDowell of Goodman McGuffey (left) and Pete Werdesheim of Werdesheim Law Firm (Courtesy photos) Jamie McDowell of Goodman McGuffey (left) and Pete Werdesheim of Werdesheim Law Firm (Courtesy photos)

You never forget your first case. And I know I’ll never forget the case I was helping with as I transitioned from law student to licensed attorney: a pro bono case on behalf of a profoundly vulnerable Atlanta family.

Ms. Joel (a pseudonym) and her two grandchildren lived in their apartment for only one month before the moisture seeping in around their poorly-sealed windows caused the first trace of mold to appear. Soon, mold covered their walls, windows, and floors. Much of their clothing, shoes and furniture—even the children’s toys—got damaged or destroyed. To make matters worse, Ms. Joel’s granddaughter suffers from asthma, and the mold exacerbated her breathing problems.

Unlike many low-income tenants, Ms. Joel had renters’ insurance, and her unsympathetic property manager insisted that insurance coverage was her only recourse. However, the policy specifically excluded mold claims. Meanwhile, the manager initially refused to allow the family to move and then dragged his feet in accommodating the family’s relocation to another unit.

Luckily, Ms. Joel had taken extensive photographs and videos of the mold. She even recorded a maintenance worker admitting that the unit “definitely had mold” caused by improperly sealed windows. When attorney Pete Werdesheim and I met Ms. Joel via the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, she presented that stack of evidence to us and asked us for help. I was a third-year law student, working as a law clerk with Pete.

I worked with the family to compile a list of destroyed items. I then shared that list with a pro bono forensic consultant, who determined the items’ fair market value. A mold expert also donated his time to review the family’s photos and videos and provide expert insight on the cause of the mold.

Pete contacted the landlord’s in-house counsel to discuss the case. I was surprised to see that the landlord was more willing to engage with an adverse attorney than with his own tenants! I was reminded of my own friends and family members who, in the past, could not find the legal help they needed and suffered the consequences.

Eventually, Pete and the landlord’s attorney reached a favorable settlement—a sum that exceeded the values determined by our forensic consultant. Ms. Joel and her family are now living in a mold-free apartment.

As this matter wound down, I passed the bar exam and was sworn in. I am thankful to have experienced the difference lawyers can make just as I begin my legal career. Sometimes the difference between an insurmountable barrier and a happy ending is a pro bono attorney. That lesson wasn’t on the bar exam, but I’ve committed it to memory.

Jamie McDowell was admitted to practice last month and is an attorney at Goodman McGuffey LLP. She formerly worked as a law clerk with Pete Werdesheim of Werdesheim Law Firm, LLC.