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Local lawyer sets fast pace for pro bono work

By Ed Brock

Some people buy a new sports car or get a facelift when they feel a mid-life crisis coming on. Betty Williams-Kirby went to law school.

"I turned 40 and had my mid-life crisis and decided that now was the time," Williams-Kirby said.

The Clayton County Pro Bono Project and Atlanta Legal Aid recently honored Williams-Kirby of Ellenwood, now 50, as the newest attorney who took on the most pro bono cases last year.

Yes, sometimes lawyers work for free, and Williams-Kirby did that more than usual for a new attorney.

"When they referred cases I would accept the cases," Williams-Kirby said. "It's something I enjoy doing. I'm glad I'm in a position to be able to help people. I think people are entitled to legal representation."

A mother of two, Williams-Kirby went back to law school, something she'd always wanted to do, in 1994. Before then she had spent about 20 years working for the Department of Human Resources as, among other things, a case worker and supervisor.

After graduating from John Marshall Law School in Atlanta in 1997 and passing the bar in 1998 she also served as a staff attorney.

Most of the pro bono cases she works are civil cases like divorces and bankruptcy, but Williams-Kirby practices criminal law as well from her offices in Decatur and Jonesboro.

Originally from Louisville, Ga., Williams-Kirby also taught elementary school in Burke County, but she always wanted to practice law.

"I grew up in the Civil Rights era and that had an impact on me," Williams-Kirby said.

Although most of the legal aid work she does is fairly simple, "you still have to put the time in on it," she said. That time can add up to about 10 to 20 hours per case and one to three pro bono cases a month.

But of course Williams-Kirby isn't the only lawyer doing work "for the good," the literal translation of pro bono, Clayton County Bar Association President Suellen Fleming said.

"The ethical rules that bind all attorneys require us to perform pro bono work each year," Fleming said. "Every attorney I know accepts civil cases for which they will not receive their full fees and the do it for the good."

Williams-Kirby handled 10 pro bono cases last year, said Pamela Hampton, pro bono coordinator for Atlanta Legal Aid.

"The average pro bono attorney would take about two, she took 10," Hampton said. "And they were complicated cases."

The cases included divorces, legitimization of children and Chapter 7 bankruptcies.

"In a lot of (the bankruptcy) cases it was elderly people trying to save their houses," Hampton said.