Virginia Lawyer

VaLawyer_June/July 2013

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Access to Legal Services Legal Aid Attorney of the Year Labors in a Region of Lost Industry by Dawn Chase The view from U.S. 360 heading up into the Northern Neck offers few clues to how life there has changed. There are fields, stands of trees, glimpses of water: a landscape that long supported people who put their backs into their work farming, cutting timber, and fishing in the rivers and Chesapeake Bay. But so much of that work is gone now. People whose families raised generations by harvesting crops, lumber, oysters, crabs, and fish are now working for minimum wage at the new fast food places and motels that cater to tourists. A native of Westmoreland County described the struggle: "I see residents trek to a convenience store or service station with water bottles and trek home with them full, in the wheelbarrow. Car and car insurance long-gone. It's bleak beyond description." It is in this region that, twenty-nine years ago, attorney John R. Rellick chose to use his legal skills to help the neediest people of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. As managing attorney of the Tappahannock office of Rappahannock Legal Services (RLS), he is the sole legal aid lawyer for seven counties. With his staff — paralegal Hope Bunch and secretary and "gatekeeper" (his description) Kim Wilkins — Rellick works, one client at a time to make sure they get a fair hearing in their conflicts with landlords, bill collectors, and bureaucracies. On June 14, Rellick was named Legal Aid Attorney of the Year by the Virginia State Bar Committee on Access to Legal Services during the VSB's annual meeting in Virginia Beach. He was nominated for the award by Bill 34 VIRGINIA LAWYER | June/July 2013 | Vol. 62 Botts, longtime executive director of RLS, now retired. At the award ceremony, speaking to an audience that included legal aid advocates and Supreme Court of Virginia Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser, Rellick talked about his clients. "There is a myth that poor people are poor because of their own personal failings, their ignorance, their laziness," he said. "[T]he majority are not like that. Very few people choose to be poor. They often find themselves poor as a result of circumstances beyond their control — poor health, parents who didn't value education, traumatic experience in their upbringing, an abusive partner whom they haven't been able to separate from, or a tragic accident. We've seen some clients who, before the current economic downturn, were solidly in the middle class. … "If my car won't start one morning, I have another car that I can drive to work. If I get sick, I have sick leave that I can draw upon and health benefits that I can use to speed my recovery. I'm not likely to lose my job if my car breaks down or if I or one of my children gets sick. "The poor whom legal aid employees see each day are not as lucky." The Tappahannock staff works out of a cozy white frame house, just around the corner from a car-title and paydayloan business on U.S. 360. In the tradition of small-town Southern law firms, they're within a block of the courthouse. Bunch, who handles Social Security disability cases, has worked with Rellick for seventeen years, and Wilkins for seven. Wilkins coordinates the few pro bono referrals to local lawyers who also are struggling in the region's downturn. She screens applicants for legal aid and other charitable services that coordinate with legal aid. The three talk about the clients in context of their larger lives — where they live, other help they need, how they make their livings and serve their community, and the endless line of them. Once, after she'd been there a while, Wilkins dreamt about a cat that was producing kittens. She tried to protect them, but as fast as she picked one up, another would appear. Bunch, on hearing about the dream the next morning, told her, "That's legal aid." For her part, Bunch said that when she and her husband retire to bed and she starts to tell him the story of her day, he says, "'Hope, I can't listen to that before I go to sleep. I won't be able to sleep.' You have to develop a barrier between your heart and their problems." As Rellick accepted the award, he spoke to his colleagues from legal aid programs across the state, who all have witnessed growing poverty, less financial support, and layoffs in their ranks in the past several years. "[I]f you let yourself become too emotionally involved in the problems of our clients, absorbing the sadness of each, one could easily become overwhelmed with that sadness. Some young legal aid attorneys become quickly burned out in that way. "Those of us who have stuck around a while have been able to do so because of putting some emotional distance between our lives and that of our clients. … "But that wall or barrier should not be so impermeable that we can't feel some sorrow, or in many cases some www.vsb.org

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