Phyllis Holmen Phyllis Holmen, Georgia Legal Services, Atlanta (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

The Georgia Legal Services Program’s longtime leader, Phyllis Holmen, is retiring after a 43-year career at the legal aid agency.

During that time, Georgia Legal Services, the state’s law firm for the poor, has grown from a fledgling operation to an agency with a $14 million budget. Its 60 lawyers and 135 staff serve Georgians with civil legal problems in the 154 counties outside metro Atlanta. Last year they closed 9,500 cases.

“I have loved the work and the people and what we stood for and were able to do,” said Holmen. “I am grateful to have enjoyed a wonderful career doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

She and her husband are in good health, but “we’re not here forever,” said Holmen, 69. “It felt like it was time to do something different.”

Holmen said she’s aiming to retire at the end of January but that it’s a soft date, depending on when a new executive director is hired. “It could go a little bit longer than that,” she said.

Georgia Legal Services is conducting a national search to fill Holmen’s position. Former Georgia Legal Services board president Patrick Flinn is heading the search committee, which includes current board president Shalamar Parham, other board members and staff attorneys.

The deadline to apply is Dec. 15.

Asked what qualities are most important for a legal aid director, Holmen replied, “A commitment to the mission—of justice for all and providing opportunities to get out of poverty.”

“The new director will need to be interested in trying new things and interested in making new relationships with leaders in the community, including at law firms and law schools,” she added.

From Chicago to Rural Georgia

Holmen, who grew up in Chicago, joined Georgia Legal Services in 1974 after law school at the University of Illinois, and she’s never left. “I had no interest in working for a firm. I went to law school to do this,” she told the Daily Report in a 2016 profile, upon receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Georgia Indigents Legal Services, as it was first known, had just opened in 1971, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Goldberg v. Kelly, saying that welfare recipients facing benefits cuts were entitled to a hearing.

It was a landmark decision for legal aid, Holmen said last year. “People did not think of problems getting benefits as a legal problem, especially in rural areas where they were not savvy. One thing that we do is educate people that they have legal rights.”

To fund lawyers for the benefits hearings, several State Bar of Georgia members convinced Gov. Lester Maddox to allocate $200,000 in federal and matching funds. Soon after, the federal Legal Services Corp. (LSC), created by Congress in 1974, became the primary funder of legal aid organizations around the country, including Georgia Legal Services.

Holmen joined the Savannah office and rode the circuit, handling the new benefits cases, divorces, landlord-tenant and consumer cases over usurious loans and scams. Later, she took on more specialized cases and won the release of foster children committed to mental hospitals for unruly behavior.

Just as Holmen became the group’s director in 1990, Congress sharply cut the LSC’s budget, under attack since Ronald Reagan was president, which supplied 75 percent of its funding. Georgia Legal Services lost one-fourth of its staff attorneys. Newt Gingrich’s ascendancy caused more cuts in 1996.

The Trump administration has also tried to defund the LSC. Members of Congress, business leaders, clergy and law school deans have rallied to preserve the LSC’s funding and are doing the same for the 2018 budget.

Diversifying funding sources has been one of Holmen’s goals over the years, and now only about half of the group’s $14 million budget comes from the LSC.

“We’ve got a level of stability, effectiveness and quality of staff that I’m very proud of,” Holmen said. “I tend to be optimistic. I think we will get through this like we’ve gotten through many other cuts and proposed cuts over the years.”

Establishing the Georgia Legal Services Foundation is another accomplishment. It provides funding for things that are hard to raise money for, Holmen said, such as updating the IT system. Georgia Legal Services is in the middle of a $1 million fundraising campaign to add to the foundation’s $3 million in capital.

Holmen said the group is hiring new lawyers for some vacancies with additional cy pres funds from Bank of America’s record-breaking $16.65 billion settlement in 2014 with the Department of Justice stemming from the financial crisis.

Georgia Legal Services will recognize Holmen as one of its Champions of Justice on Jan. 25, at its biennial recognition event, which is also a fundraiser. The event will be from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the State Bar Center at 104 Marietta St. The cost is $50 for lawyers, $30 for younger lawyers, and $20 for friends. Contributions may be made at glsp.org.