The new Atlanta Legal Aid Building.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society kicked off its annual campaign Thursday at a time when the need for legal aid is spiking because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The group has received a fivefold increase in calls from people having trouble obtaining unemployment benefits, while domestic violence and eviction cases are accelerating, said Atlanta Legal Aid’s executive director, Steve Gottlieb, over a Zoom call with law firm team captains. 

The Zoom call replaced the traditional campaign breakfast meeting hosted by Georgia Pacific general counsel Tye Darland in its penthouse dining room.

“After the 2008 financial crisis, it was the law firms that continued to support us, and that is certainly the case now,” Gottlieb said. “Our legal community support is the bedrock in Atlanta for the work we do.”

Pacesetter firms, which contribute $500 per Atlanta attorney, are the backbone of the campaign and include the city’s largest firms. So far, Pacesetter firms have contributed $1.25 million toward this year’s $1.7 million goal.

That’s less than the $1.34 million that the campaign had raised from Pacesetter firms by April of last year, since law firms and corporate legal departments are grappling with budget strains.

Contributions from law firms and corporate legal departments are Atlanta Legal Aid’s second-largest source of funding after the federal Legal Services Corp., making up more than 15% of its $12 million annual budget.

Pacesetter firms and businesses that have contributed so far this year are: Alston & Bird; Arnall Golden Gregory; Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz; Bondurant Mixson & Elmore; Butler Wooten & Peak; Chick-fil-A; Eversheds Sutherland; Fellows LaBriola; Georgia Pacific Corp.; Home Depot; Hunton Andrews Kurth; King & Spalding; Michael T. Nations; Rogers & Hardin; Schreeder, Wheeler & Flint; Shiver Hamilton; Smith, Gambrell & Russell; Troutman Pepper; and Weissman.

This year’s annual campaign co-chairs, Chick-fil-A assistant general counsel Tammy Pearson and Troutman Pepper partner Ryan Schneider, are leading the effort to raise the final $500,000.

Unexpected Need

Calls to Atlanta Legal Aid for help temporarily slowed after it closed its offices in March and shifted to online intake, Gottlieb said, but now cases are exceeding precrisis numbers.

“I’m not sure people realize the level of stress our clients are under,” said Randy Hughes, a veteran volunteer for the Georgia Senior Legal Hotline. “In the last week, I’ve had calls from two people in mental health crisis. I had to refer one to a suicide hotline.”

Domestic violence incidents have increased, placing more demand on Atlanta Legal Aid for assistance. After the courts closed in March, Gottlieb said, the Clayton County Magistrate Court asked Clayton Legal Aid to assist domestic violence victims seeking temporary protective orders at online ex parte hearings. The legal aid group has handled 540 hearings so far, or 7.5 clients per day.

Evictions are another hot spot. They are stayed while Georgia courts are closed, but people getting kicked out of extended stay hotels need immediate help, Gottlieb said.

The owners don’t consider themselves landlords, he explained, so they call the police to evict people. “Someone who doesn’t receive a paycheck on Friday could be put out on Monday,” he said.

Atlanta Legal Aid is negotiating with hotel owners and police to pause evictions. “Our position is if someone has been staying there for 60 days, then it’s a landlord relationship,” Gottlieb said, because the City of Atlanta’s hotel and motel tax expires after 60 days of occupancy. 

Meanwhile, Georgia Supreme Court just reinstated filing deadlines July 10, although courts continue to be closed until Aug. 11. Atlanta Legal Aid is sending text messages to 10,000 current and past clients informing them of this. “It’s not automatic that these evictions get stayed, and they could lose if they don’t file an answer,” Gottlieb said.

On the benefits front, Atlanta Legal Aid has contacted its 3,500 clients with open cases to inform them of benefits available under the CARES Act.

It is also holding weekly Facebook Live meetings for the public where legal aid lawyers can explain government benefits and other pressing issues such as evictions. Each of the 10 meetings so far has attracted about 700 people, said Angie Tacker, the communications and annual giving director.