As assistant director of the Georgia State Law Center for Access to Justice, Darcy Meals believes that her job is to get law students out of the textbooks and into the community. The center houses the Public Interest Law & Policy certificate, Pro Bono Program and Alternative Spring Break, giving students the opportunity to use their classroom skills to help people in underserved communities.
Service has been the cornerstone of Meals’ legal career, which began at the Williams Institute, a thinktank at the University of California, Los Angeles focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law and policy. Once she enrolled at UCLA School of Law, she specialized in public service through the David J. Epstein Public Interest Law & Policy Program. Here, she talks about the importance of service and how “it only takes two hours to make a difference in someone’s life.”
Tell me about your transition from traditional law practice to academia.
My first job after law school was working for a federal judge in Baltimore, and I got to see a range of legal practice. After I worked for the judge, I worked at a law firm for a few years. I learned a lot at the firm, but I had this pull to be more engaged with the community. Four years ago, when I saw that the Center for Access to Justice was opening, I was excited to get involved at the ground level. It was coming back to those roots from the Williams Institute, but with the benefit of having gone to law school myself.
One of the things the center has become known for is the Pro Bono Program. How does pro bono work help students build good lawyering skills?
Working in a law firm context, a pro bono case is usually a young associate’s first chance to see something through from start to finish. The Pro Bono Program gives students a taste of that while they’re still in law school. It lets them know that even in two hours, they can make a difference for people. Even if they don’t go into public interest law, they can find two hours to write a demand letter, or sit with someone as they’re filling out paper work, and to that person it makes a tremendous difference.
How has the Pro Bono Program changed or pivoted during COVID-19?
We created a virtual opportunities bank, and we’ve also been able to develop new partnerships. Law students helped an organization called Probation Information conduct a 50-state survey on probation requirements. And, we supported voting rights alongside Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Some students lost their summer internships due to COVID-19, so they have been looking for ways to get experience. We have been able to provide opportunities to help fill that gap.
What is a legal issue that you believe more people should be paying attention to?
One in general is the criminalization of poverty. People end up in jail because they can’t pay the fines and fees associated with their convictions, or they’re in jail to begin with because of panhandling or loitering, which is a fact of homelessness and shouldn’t necessarily be a crime. In the context of the pandemic, we’re about to see an unprecedented housing crisis. People across the country have lost their jobs and aren’t able to pay their rent. Evictions have been stayed for the most part, but once those stays are lifted, it’s going to be crushing. If policymakers act now, they could do a lot to stem that tide.
As you all continue to grow and develop, what do you hope the center will become?
We want to be a hub for research, community education, and law student training for what it looks like to navigate the justice system as an underrepresented person in the South. We want to bring numbers to discussions that can sometimes be political, heated, and stray from people’s lived experience. I hope that students who engage with the center will leave with an understanding of their own ability and responsibility to affect change.
Interview by Kelundra Smith