To celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2017, Virginia Legal Aid Society is telling 40 stories that reflect our history, our people and the cases and events that have made the past 40 years so memorable. These will be released over 40 weeks, finishing at our gala celebration on November 17 in Farmville at the Moton Museum.Gail Braxton and Jessie Woodson-Johnson remember that Virginia Legal Aid Society started as quite a different operation than it is today.
“There were fewer restrictions on the type of civil cases we handled. People could walk in without an appointment and were assisted right on the spot as long as they were within our income guidelines, and the attorney or paralegal were available,” said Jessie.
There was a word processor or two, but most people worked on electric typewriters. “I remember typing bankruptcy papers with carbon paper,” Gail said. “You had to press a little harder when there was more than one copy.”
Jessie said, “We were more cautious about typing mistakes because, unlike keyboarding today, we made sure our first draft was a perfect draft.”
Gail started as a legal secretary in the VLAS Farmville office in October 1979, a few months after it opened. She had worked at the state Department of Corrections in accounting before taking maternity leave with her first child. “I thought I was going to be a stay-at-home mom,” Gail said. “I got bored in three months.”
Gail had a sister-in-law who worked for James Ghee, a Farmville attorney who had been integral to the creation of VLAS. She introduced Gail to the legal field. The work sounded interesting. Gail started work in the Farmville office and never left. “I’ve always been a people person,” Gail said. “I love the fulfillment that I helped somebody do something important. A lot of our clients have already run into brick walls” before they arrive at VLAS.
Jessie joined a half-year later, taking Gail’s job after she had been promoted to Office Manager.
Jessie grew up in Buckingham County, living on the family homestead. “I knew when I was in high school I wanted to work in the legal field,” she said.
Life got in the way for a bit. Jessie married and had her first child, but was soon working for the state Department of Corrections and then at the Division of Motor Vehicles, as a clerk stenographer. Her commute to Richmond was a challenge, and after many early mornings and late nights, she aimed to get a job closer to home. She heard that VLAS was looking for a legal secretary and interviewed with Gail. Gail offered her a job within a day.
By the mid-1980s, Gail and Jessie were both working as paralegals for VLAS, and they continue to serve clients as paralegals today.
These days, VLAS identifies practice areas of emphasis – such as housing, families in transition, consumer issues and education – based on community input that we turn into a five-year strategic plan. Back then, “If it wasn’t criminal, we did it,” Gail said.
The client referral network was less formal, too. “We’d have a client come in and say, ‘I saw your cousin in the grocery store. She said to
come in to see you,’ ” Jessie said.
Potential clients could just walk in, without an appointment – and by walk in, we don’t just mean into the office. “I had people come by the house” seeking legal advice, Gail said.
“When they came in the door, you could see on their faces, they needed help right away,” Gail said. “That’s what kept me here so long, the satisfaction of helping them solve their problems.”
It naturally took a while for the community to understand what Legal Aid was all about and the ways we could help the community. Staffers in the Farmville office, among other locations, took it upon themselves to spread the word by talking with a variety of local groups. They spoke at churches, parent-teacher organizations, a Southside Virginia Community College branch, career days, retired teachers associations – anywhere with a curious audience that might refer clients.
The staff did a monthly show on the Farmville radio station WFLO, taking calls and giving general information on consumer issues, how to apply for food stamps, what to do in landlord-tenant disputes, and other topics.
In time, VLAS became a vital part of the community in Farmville and the rural counties surrounding it. “People felt like they finally had somebody who would go and fight for them,” Jessie said.
The Farmville office had its share of off-beat cases. In one divorce case, the wife (the VLAS client) and her husband couldn’t agree on who should receive custody of their three children. Finally, the wife said, “You know what? If he wants the kids that badly, let him have them.”
About a month later, the husband was ready to give the children back, which the VLAS staff suspected was part of the wife’s strategy all along.