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Front Page - Friday, November 1, 2019

‘I get to work with real heroes every day’

Legal Aid executive director on why its services are vital to the community

When clients come into the offices of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, they want help.

They also want to know that the lawyer across the desk or table understands their issue and challenges. The LAET team works hard to provide that empathy, and in the case of Sheri Fox, the organization’s executive director, there might even be some real-world experience to enhance the bonding.

Before joining LAET in January 2016, Fox worked as a newspaper reporter, served as ghostwriter for a book on probate and held the title of director of marketing for both a banking software company and a forklift battery manufacturer.

The University of Tennessee College of Law graduate also holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Georgia along with a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Nova University.

As a counselor, Fox has worked with rape and incest survivors, provided in-home counseling to low-income single mothers and worked with traumatic brain injury patients. Her legal career includes time as a shareholder in the Chattanooga office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz P.C., where she practiced in state and federal courts and focused her practice on health care, long-term care, products liability, complex commercial litigation, construction litigation and probate litigation.

In addition to her work at LAET, she serves on the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services’ board of directors, and on the Tennessee Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee. She also is the immediate past president of the Brock-Cooper American Inn of Court. She holds an AV Preeminent Peer Review rating from Martindale-Hubbell, has been selected to the Mid-South Super Lawyers List for multiple years, was listed in the 2016 edition of Best Lawyers in America (products liability litigation-defendants) and is a Fellow of the American, Tennessee, and Chattanooga Bar Associations.

She was the 2018 Recipient of the Chattanooga Bar Association’s Ralph H. Kelley Humanitarian Award and the 2010 Recipient of the Albert L. Hodge Volunteer Award, presented by the Chattanooga Bar Association “for exemplary volunteer service to the Chattanooga Bar Association and the Chattanooga Legal Community.” She also has earned the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Attorney for Justice designation on multiple occasions.

She recently talked with the Hamilton County Herald about her career and the service of LAET.

What is it about what Legal Aid of East Tennessee is and does that appeals to you?

“I get to work with real heroes every day. The attorneys, paralegals and other professionals who work at Legal Aid literally change the world by helping thousands of people solve legal problems that, but for Legal Aid, would leave our neighbors and friends homeless, hungry, without other basic necessities of life including health care and at risk of severe injury or death.

“In a very real way, Legal Aid and those who support us, are the guardians of justice in America. Our republic was founded on the principle of justice for all – not just for those who can afford to pay a lawyer. The work Legal Aid does helps protect and ensure that we, as Americans, are keeping the promises we make every time we say the Pledge of Allegiance; keeping the promises our founders enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.’’

What kind of clients does the agency typically serve?

“Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil (non-criminal) legal assistance to low-income and elderly residents of East Tennessee, as well as to survivors of domestic violence, stalking or human trafficking.

“Community groups also may be eligible for help from Legal Aid if the members of the organization are from low-income households. Also, we provide educational talks or programs to help educate the community about various legal matters.’’

Is your client mix different from Legal Aids’ sister entities in other Tennessee cities and/or in other areas of the country? If so, how so?

“Our client mix generally is similar to the clients served by other legal aid organizations that, like us, are also funded by the Legal Services Corporation; however, the types of cases handled varies depending upon the specific needs and priorities of the local community.

“Legal Aid of East Tennessee is in the midst of completing a needs assessment of the specific legal needs in the 26 counties we serve. Other LSC grantee organizations perform similar assessments on a regular basis. The results of these assessments help us make sure we are addressing the specific needs of our communities.’’

(Author’s note: “Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. LSC promotes equal access to justice by providing funding to 133 independent nonprofit legal aid programs in every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.” https://www.lsc.gov/).

What was one thing you wanted to “course correct” in terms of what Legal Aid is, or does, when you took the job?

“I wanted to help more people understand the need for and value of the work Legal Aid does. I also wanted to continue to build on Legal Aid’s reputation for delivering excellent legal services to clients by making sure our lawyers, paralegals and other staff have the tools and resources they need to preserve and enhance Legal Aid’s reputation as the best law firm money can’t buy.

“Finally, I wanted to increase and diversify Legal Aid’s funding so we can continue and, ideally, expand, this important work.’’

What is the community’s perception of Legal Aid is? And if that’s not correct, how do you think that can be changed?

“I think many people confuse us with the amazing attorneys who work as public defenders. Public defenders represent people who have been charged with a crime but who cannot afford to hire an attorney to defend them. Legal Aid handles only civil matters; in other words, only non-criminal cases. I think this can be corrected by doing a better job of promoting and publicizing what Legal Aid does.

“Another misconception that we need to address is that we help people who don’t want to work even though they could. The vast majority of our clients are hardworking East Tennesseans who, through no fault of their own, have a legal problem they need help solving.

“It might be a tenant whose landlord has shut off the electricity or the water even though the tenant has paid the rent. Or perhaps it’s a hardworking single mother who takes her car to a local shop for repair, but the mechanic doesn’t fix the car or refuses to give it back to her unless she pays more than she agreed to pay. Without a reliable car, this woman cannot get to work and can’t drive her children to school.

“Because people in these sorts of situations don’t make much money, they can’t afford to hire an attorney to help them navigate what can be a very confusing legal system. After all, our legal system was created for lawyers, by lawyers.’’

What would you like Legal Aid to focus on in the coming year? Five years?

“Legal Aid has a strategic plan that we use as a roadmap for achieving our mission, which is to strengthen communities and change lives by delivering high-quality legal services.

“The current plan goes through 2020. Several goals remain the same each year: improve the client experience, increase and diversity funding, and increase awareness of Legal Aid’s work and reputation for excellence in the community.

“In addition, we will use the needs assessment to make sure we are meeting the current, specific needs of the communities we serve.

“Our long-term vision for Legal Aid is an East Tennessee where justice is a community value and where no one faces a legal problem alone simply because he or she cannot afford to hire an attorney.’’

If you were on an elevator and heard people talking about the agency, what would you want to hear?

“That access to Legal Aid is as important as access to health care, education and employment. Legal Aid is the “justice for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance; the guardian of justice in this community.’’