Steve Forte, Smith Gambrell & Russell, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Steve Forte, Smith Gambrell & Russell, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society kicked off its annual campaign this year with the ambitious goal of raising $1.7 million from the private bar.

Annual campaign contributions from law firms and corporate legal departments are the group’s second-largest single source of funding after the Federal Legal Services Corp., making up more than 15 percent of the group’s $12 million annual budget.

Atlanta Legal Aid lawyers and staff opened 20,000 cases last year, offering free civil legal services to low-income people in housing, consumer, health, benefits and family law cases.

Smith Gambrell & Russell chairman Steve Forte is chairing the campaign again this year, after leading it last year with Home Depot general counsel Teresa Roseborough. Smith Gambrell founder E. Smythe Gambrell started the Atlanta Legal Aid Society 95 years ago.

Forte had both good and sobering news for this year’s fundraising captains who assembled at the April 26 kick-off breakfast, hosted by Georgia-Pacific general counsel Tye Darland in the Georgia-Pacific Center.

The campaign’s Pacesetter firms have contributed $1.34 million toward the $1.7 million goal. These firms, which include some of the city’s largest, contribute $500 for each lawyer in their Atlanta office.

“The hard part starts now,” Forte said. The rest of the money must come from new donors and individual contributions.

Forte said fundraising leaders are reaching out to new sources this year—the insurance defense and the plaintiffs bars, which have been mostly unrepresented. “There are many tremendous firms,” he said, adding that Alan Hamilton of Shiver Hamilton is leading the plaintiffs bar effort.

Every dollar counts, said Steve Gottlieb, the group’s longtime executive director, because the legal needs of the city’s low-income residents are growing.

Many low-income homeowners are in danger of losing their homes, he said, because their tax assessments have jumped sharply since the spike in Fulton property valuations that started in 2017. The Fulton move was rolled back a year due to a public outcry but is looming again.

In response, Atlanta Legal Aid is training lawyers in private practice to help with property tax appeals. Having a lawyer helps, Gottlieb said. For instance, one legal aid client who bought a Habitat for Humanity home for $40,000 was assessed last year for $168,000—and couldn’t afford the tax increase. A legal aid lawyer was able to get the assessment down to $115,000.

Visit Atlanta Legal Aid’s website or contact Angie Tacker at ajtacker@AtlantaLegalAid.org for contribution details.