It started with Mercer Law School Dean Daisy Floyd suggesting the idea of a lawyer incubator program in Macon. Dean Floyd had been involved with the movement to start the first such program in the State of Georgia. Those efforts included all the law schools in Georgia and the State Bar of Georgia and led to the creation of Lawyers for Equal Justice in Atlanta, which opened in April 2016. Why not have a lawyer incubator program in Macon, Dean Floyd asked? After considering other possible partnerships, we decided to crerate our own entity, which would prove to be more effective by the flexibility it would afford us. After much discussion and investigation into options for starting something new, the name Middle Georgia Access to Justice Council was chosen and it was formed on October 16, 2017 as a domestic non-profit corporation. Since it would take time to get IRS approval for 501(c)(3) status, the Community Foundation of Central Georgia kindly agreed in November 2017 to be our fiscal sponsor to aid in our early efforts to raise money. This was a huge help and we are most grateful to Kathryn Dennis and Julia Wood for making this work. We were then fortunate to get IRS approval for tax-exempt status on May 2, 2018, and we were able to start our fundraising efforts in a more earnest fashion.
Our approach from the beginning was to make this project a collaborative effort of the Mercer Law School, the Georgia Legal Services Program, and the Macon Bar Association. We exist to complement the services already being provided to our citizens who need legal assistance and cannot afford it.
We needed office space to get started, and as it developed, our local GLSP office had space upstairs once occupied by the US Magistrate. After a lease was signed, we were fortunate to have awesome assistance to get the office opened on June 1, 2018. Ken Smith of Bibb Home Improvement donated the necessary renovations, Alex Permenter of Alex’s PC Solutions donated the computers and telephones as well as the cabling and setup, local lawyers and businesses donated the furniture, and Chris Wrabel at MBG Business Solutions donated the copier/scanner. Now all we needed were lawyer participants in the fledgling incubator program.
Robert Divis was our first participant. A 2017 graduate of the Mercer Law School, he waited until February 2018 to take the bar exam and learned he passed the bar in late May in time to start with us on June 1, 2018. Rob had heard Fred Rooney when Fred spoke to a group of law students. Fred founded the incubator movement in 2009 and came to Macon in September 2017 to help us get started. Trineice Hill, a 2014 Mercer Law graduate, started in the program in November 2018. Nyonnohweah Seekie, a 2016 Mercer Law graduate, joined the program in April 2019.
As part of the incubator program, participants are required to do 30 hours per month of pro bono legal services. The need for legal services we were seeing called upon us to develop other ways to meet that need. Debbie Aickelin started as our office manager in July 2018 and helped us get organized. In August 2018, we started seeking lawyer volunteers and got a great early response. In September 2018, we started doing intake interviews for assignment to our volunteers. We have been getting referrals from GLSP, the judges, the court clerks, lawyers, ministries, and agencies. We have grown our volunteer list – the Justice Brigade – in order to try to keep up with the need. Family law has been the dominant area of law for people seeking our assistance. Innovative ways to meet that need were called for so we examined what was being done in other counties around Georgia.
Mike Horner started as our executive director in May 2019 and hit the ground running. Among his many tasks, he has taken on the creation of a family law self-help center in our office space. Now completed, we have two computer terminals with fillable family law court forms for people to use with some assistance so that the court filings will be drastically improved. We will also be promoting limited legal consultations, unbundled services and any other idea we can come up with to leverage our limited resources to try to meet the needs the best we can. Thanks to a grant from the American Bar Endowment, we received funding to add two new terminals, as well as computer research.
The progress we have made has been made possible by generous contributions of money and time by lawyers, law firms, foundations, citizens in our community, and more. Thank you to all of our supporters!