While many of his peers are just starting to plan for future careers, Gabriel Weiss already has a nonprofit legal firm under his belt.
The venture began two years ago as an outgrowth of Weiss’ efforts to help his father, attorney Cliff Weiss, provide free legal advice to Emory University employees and students.
Emory University Student Legal Services was staffed by 40 to 50 law students who acted as paralegals, said Gabriel, a sophomore at Atlanta Jewish Academy. And his father was the only lawyer for 28 years.
“In recent years, Emory placed an emphasis on helping mostly people who were deemed indigent, which did not apply to many employees at Emory, nor to students who were mostly dependent upon their parents. Finally, last spring Emory decided that the program was unnecessary and cancelled it,” Gabriel said.
“Knowing that there was a need for such a program, and having seen for myself how effective SLS was in providing assistance to clients who had nowhere else to go for legal advice, I told my father that I wanted to start my own legal services program. That is how Legal Aid for All began.”
Once SLS ended, Gabriel began researching other legal aid services around Atlanta, and learned that the two main organizations are Georgia Legal Services Program and Atlanta Legal Aid Society. “Both of these organizations have several offices around the metro Atlanta area, but they only assist people who are below or a little above the poverty level. This confirmed my belief that something should be done to assist the lower middle-class people who earn significantly more than the poverty level, so they do not qualify for free legal aid, but still cannot afford to pay the legal fees that most lawyers charge today.”
After realizing the need for a new kind of legal aid program, Gabriel researched how to start a nonprofit corporation.
“My father assisted me in completing the documentation and filing. I used some of my own money to pay for filing and registration fees, and my parents donated the rest of the money that was needed.”
But Gabriel’s age became a sticking point. Georgia law requires members of the board of directors of a corporation to be at least 18 years old. “Since I am only 16, I cannot be on the board.” So the board’s directors became Gabriel’s dad and Terry Flynn, who “has a long history of working with nonprofits and has been a wonderful addition to the organization,” Gabriel said. “My role is to manage the daily operations and handle all of the marketing and website, as well as screen all of our clients, gather information about their cases, and refer them to the volunteer attorney who can best help them.”
Legal Aid for All is an approved nonprofit corporation that provides legal services for anyone in the metro Atlanta area, regardless of their income, Gabriel said.
“Unlike the other legal aid organizations, Legal Aid for All is available for everyone, not just people who fall near the poverty line. Reduced fees are charged to clients on a sliding scale, with low- to middle-income people paying only a small fraction of regular legal fees,” he said.
Gabriel’s involvement with the indigent had another consequence. “Due to the political climate over the last few years, I have become more interested in politics, economics and sociology. It seems to me that the working poor and most of middle America have been left out, with no help from the government or most charitable organizations. I have seen and heard about all types of programs for people who are indigent or do not work, and I know that those programs serve a necessary, humanitarian purpose. The problem is that there are many more people in our society who need assistance.”
Through his work with Legal Aid for All, Gabriel has seen the struggles first-hand. “With lawyers commonly charging from $250 to $750 per hour in Atlanta, most working families simply cannot afford to hire lawyers to represent them, unless they are involved in some type of contingent-fee injury case,” he said.
“Our organization makes legal representation affordable for everyone, with rates ranging from $25 to $75 per hour or based upon reasonable flat fees for entire cases. This enables clients to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars instead of tens of thousands of dollars for litigation.”
There’s also a level of dignity that comes into play. “I have heard from clients and lawyers who say that clients who actually pay something for legal representation feel better about their cases. People act more reasonably because they have some of their own money at stake. Clients feel like the services they are receiving are more valuable. Most importantly, there is less stigma of feeling like a charity case since the clients are paying something for their legal representation, and that seems to make them feel better about their situation.”
Legal Aid for All currently has six attorneys who have agreed to provide free initial consultations and advice, and then handle further representation at agreed-upon, reduced rates and flat fees for clients on a broad range of legal issues. “We are always looking for more attorneys to agree to take cases from time to time at reduced rates and flat fees, and we certainly appreciate all referrals.”
To make a tax-deductible donation, or if you or someone you know could benefit from Legal Aid for All, contact Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 770-375-1668.