The Georgia Legal Services Program has hired UPS legal executive Rick Rufolo as its new leader, succeeding its longtime executive director Phyllis Holmen, who announced at the end of 2017 that she was retiring.
Heading the state’s largest nonprofit law firm for the poor is a big switch for Rufolo. Over his 30-year legal career at UPS, Rufolo headed the Fortune 50 company’s 11-lawyer labor, employment and litigation team as a vice president of legal.
“What I bring is people skills, being able to set strategy, motivate people and help them fulfill their potential–all with the ultimate goal to provide services to our clients,” he said.
As at any nonprofit, one of his biggest challenges will be fundraising to expand the agency’s reach, Rufolo added, and his ability to connect with the private sector is one reason he got the job.
Georgia Legal Services’ 145 employees, which include about 70 lawyers, provide free legal assistance to Georgians with civil legal problems in the 154 counties outside metro-Atlanta (which is served by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society). Last year, the agency closed about 8,700 cases.
“We have more than 1.5 million Georgians who live at or below the poverty line. We have to find ways to reach as many clients as possible,” Rufolo said.
Holmen, by contrast, spent her career as a poverty lawyer. She moved to Georgia in 1974 to work for Georgia Legal Services after earning her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. She told the Daily Report, which gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, that she went to law school to do poverty law.
“I have some big shoes to fill,” Rufolo acknowledged.
Ira Foster, the agency’s general counsel and deputy director, served as interim director last year until Rufolo took on the role at the beginning of the year after what Rufolo called a short, three-month retirement.
“This is a very experienced team, and Ira did an outstanding job leading it during this transition,” Rufolo said. “I owe a lot to him for his efforts this past year.”
His Next Act
Rufolo, 58, said he was preparing to retire from UPS last year and considering his next move, when he heard that Georgia Legal Services was looking for a new executive director.
“I was struck by its mission statement of creating equal opportunities for justice and helping people out of poverty,” Rufolo said.
“As a UPS lawyer, I represented one client—and that client was never denied access to justice,” he said. “At Georgia Legal Services, we represent thousands of clients who might be denied that access without our help.”
Originally from New Jersey, Rufolo joined UPS when it was still based in Greenwich, Connecticut, and then moved South with its headquarters to Atlanta, where he has lived for 22 years now.
Rufolo is familiar with public interest law from his involvement with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the Truancy Intervention Project, adding that he knew he wanted to give back to the community after he left UPS.
Earlier in his legal career, he started out volunteering with the Truancy Intervention Project, where he handled early intervention and educational neglect cases, then went on to become a board member and spent two years as board chair. He then took on some guardianship cases pro bono for Atlanta Legal Aid and later joined its board.
“I learned so much from the great lawyers at TIP and Atlanta Legal Aid. It helped me form my vision of what I wanted to continue to do,” he said.
Rufolo is also a past board chair of the Boys and Girls Club of Fulton County.
Fundraising and Expansion
Georgia Legal Services’ new leader is starting out by visiting its 10 offices around the state to get the lay of the land. “It’s a great opportunity to get out and meet everyone and see what’s going on in the communities we serve,” Rufolo said.
By Thursday, Rufolo, who is based in the group’s Atlanta headquarters, had been to the offices in Athens, Augusta and Savannah and was on his way to Brunswick. “There are some roads I didn’t know existed,” he said of his tour of Georgia so far.
Over the next two weeks, he’ll be visiting the other offices in Dalton, Gainesville, Macon, Albany and Columbus.
Federal and state grants make up the bulk of the agency’s $16.5 million annual budget—of which about 55 percent comes from the federal Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C.
Contributions from the private sector make up the rest—and expanding those sources is a key way to expand the agency’s services, Rufolo said.
“It’s critically important to continue to build relationships with law firms, foundations and others in the private sector throughout Georgia,” he said, in part because federal and state grants are restricted in use and don’t cover overhead expenses.
“That is how we attract more talented lawyers, improve our technology and expand our client services, so that ultimately we reach more clients throughout the state,” he said.
Rufolo added that he wants to expand on the foundation that Holmen and other Georgia Legal Services lawyers have built and raise the agency’s profile across Georgia. “We have a great story to tell. We need to tell that story,” he said.