Stellar Women: Increasing Access to Justice through Pro Bono with Tiffany Graves

Subscribe to Stellar Women

Stellar Women had the great opportunity to connect with Tiffany Graves this week on the podcast. Tiffany discusses how a dedicated guidance counselor helped start her path in the law, and how her career has evolved since earning her law degree.

During the conversation, Tiffany also discusses her transition from the private to public sector, and how her time in both areas prepared her for her current role as the first pro bono counsel at Bradley.

Tiffany Graves

Tiffany Graves

Pro Bono Counsel

Bradley Arant Boult Cummings

Transcript

Mary Rechtoris: Hey Stellar Women fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.

Mila Taylor: And I’m your co-host, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.

MR: Today, Mila and I are excited to have Tiffany Graves on the Stellar Women podcast. Tiffany is the pro bono counsel at Bradley, which is a law firm based in Birmingham.

MT: Hi and welcome, Tiffany.

Tiffany Graves: I am glad to be here.

MT: Mary and I have been starting the podcast with our “Highlights of the Week,” where we share something from the week or the past weekend that we're excited about or something that inspired us. I will kick us off. This the past weekend, I had a personal day. I haven't gone to a physical clothing store in a while. I bought three things and I honestly had the best day ever by myself. It was very nice to be in the store trying on clothes. It kind of felt like back to normal.

MR: Any notable purchases?

MT: I got a jacket, a skirt, and a top.

MR: Perfect. You’ll be very trendy at your next occasion. I can go next. As you all probably know and are sick of hearing, I have moved to the suburbs. I have joined the library. So, it's still very new, but I got some new books. I just finished Small Great Things. It's a 2016 novel by Jodi Picoult. Another book is Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs, and I've never read her before. I have some good reading. Tiffany, why don't we go over to you? What's been your highlight of the week, weekend, or what are you looking forward to?

TG: I love that we're giving personal highlights. My highlight of the week is that I had a friend come into town from Alabama. I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, about eight weeks ago after living in Mississippi for 15 years. You do find yourself being a little lonely and missing people that you knew when you were in your last place. This is a friend who was one of the first people I met when I moved to Mississippi. She came into town, and we had dinner last night. It was just nice to have someone very familiar. I also got a text earlier today from another friend from Mississippi who said, “Look at your calendar and tell me when I could come visit.” That’s been nice. As much as I'm excited about meeting new people and making new friends here, there's nothing like your old friends.

MR: Being in a new place, it's hard—and especially hard after a pandemic when social skills are waning.

MT: My fiancé and I are moving from Chicago to Miami for an opportunity for him. I'm fortunate enough that I could keep my job and be remote down there. But we don't really know anyone in Miami. So, I'm excited about the beach and the warmth. We already have friends who are trying to book our spare room. A friend said, “I'm coming to the winter for three weeks. Don't let anyone else stay.” That'll be nice to have some familiar faces in and out while we're in a new spot.

TG: I doubt that room is going to be empty.

MT: I know. We've already got people trying to come stay with us from September all the way through February and we haven't even gotten there yet.

MR: I reserve my birthday weekend.

MT: Everyone's welcome. Okay, we have so much that we want to discuss. So, Tiffany, if you don't mind, I'm going to just jump right into questions. What made you want to become a lawyer?

TG: In high school, I was pretty much on the medical path. I wanted to be a pediatrician. Then I took chemistry, physics, and calculus and realized that the sciences and math are not for me, and I needed to change course. I had a visit with my high school guidance counselor, who was a wonderful woman, named Miss Hart. She was the guidance counselor for my mother and her siblings as well. And I said, “I don't like science. I don't like math. What am I going to do? This is what I thought that I wanted to do all of my life.” And she said, “Well, let's talk about what you do enjoy.” I did debate team and those kinds of things. And she said, “Have you thought about a career in law as a paralegal, lawyer, or some sort of legal professional position?” And I said, “No, I hadn't.” I was going to be first generation college and first-generation professional school. I didn't have a lawyer to look up to. She said, “I'm going to get you connected with some lawyers in the community and I want you to spend some time listening to what they do to see if that has any traction with you.” She worked with my mother and me to get me connected with a couple of people. I really liked what I was hearing from them, particularly when they were talking about the pro bono work that they were doing to help people in the community. And I thought, this is it. This is what I want to do. It just resonated in ways that I hadn't anticipated. Frankly, a very caring guidance counselor started that path.

MR: It's great to hear stories about mentors inspiring people. You didn't know it was possible before and now, you're doing what you're meant to be doing, which is great. After law school, you wanted to be or were a public interest attorney. You mentioned in a prior conversation that going into the private sector was kind of a curveball if you will. Can you tell us what you learned from the private sector and how that translated well to what you do now or when you were in the public sector?

TG: Absolutely. I went to law school to be a public interest attorney. I never expected to spend any time at a law firm, to be honest with you. After a year of a public interest fellowship and right after graduating from law school, I started getting some calls from attorneys in the area who were recruiting me to potentially come to their law firms. I was really conflicted about that because, again, I was on this public interest track and had every desire to continue to work for people who lacked access to lawyers and who felt maligned by the system. And I thought that I couldn’t do that at a law firm. I had some conversations with those attorneys and one in particular was convincing. She said, “Tiffany, I want you to give some consideration to this because you will learn how to practice law. You will learn how to handle a file, manage client expectations, conduct yourself at a hearing, take a deposition, and prepare and go to trial. Those are things that sure, you may learn in time in the public interest sector. But I can guarantee you'll learn [them] almost immediately in private practice at a law firm.” That was convincing. When we think of lawyers, we think of people who do those things. And she was right. Having spent a year at a nonprofit organization, I knew that those experiences weren't nearly as readily available to me as they would have been at a law firm. So, I did it. I spent some time at a firm and got to do all those things that she told me I was going to be able to do. What I've said to people many times is that I'm convinced that experience in private practice makes me a better public interest lawyer for two reasons. One, in thinking about the attorneys that I work with now, I encourage them to do pro bono. I understand the demands of wanting to do pro bono and helping those in our community, but also having to maintain a billable practice and meet certain thresholds and requirements within the firm. I had to do those things when I was in private practice. The other thing that I appreciate is that I have practiced. When attorneys run into issues with pro bono cases, we can strategize and think about best ways to approach whatever may be going on in a case because I've handled files, worked with clients, and been at a firm. I sort of think about things the way people do who work at firms. So, it's been extremely beneficial to me in my public interest work to have spent that time at a law firm.

MT: It's cool to hear both the anecdotes that you've shared in that there's been someone who's been there to guide you through these decisions. We talk about it so often. It's so important to lean on your network and find those people that you trust, listen to, and let them help you navigate your career because they've done it before. As a mentor, that’s what they're there for. It's cool to see that that’s a theme in your life.

TG: Yes.

MT: So, you are the first pro bono counsel at Bradley. How did that role come to fruition and why does pro bono work matter to you?

TG: Bradley had been thinking about ways to elevate and diversify its pro bono program. They had been giving thought to whether they ramp up their expectations of their pro bono committee or if they seek to bring in someone who can manage, coordinate, and administer their pro bono program on a full-time basis. So unbeknownst to me, those conversations were taking place at Bradley. One of my colleagues in the Jackson, Mississippi office asked me to do a letter of recommendation for her for an award that she had been nominated for. She is one of very few female partners at a firm in Mississippi. She is the managing partner of the Jackson, Mississippi office, and is instrumental in the field and someone to admire. I was honored that she asked me to write her a letter of recommendation. So, I did that. And after doing that, she sends me a lovely note saying “Thank you so much. I got the award. I am so grateful for your support. If there's any way I can return your kindness, let me know.” And I said, “Well, if Bradley ever considers creating a pro bono counsel position, keep me in mind.” She responds with, “What is this pro bono counsel position idea that you speak of? I'm not familiar with this.” Several emails and conversations later, this becomes something that the firm really does consider creating. I'm providing information about what these positions look like and what I could potentially bring to the firm. Those conversations continued to evolve at Bradley—some I'm looped into and some I'm not. This went on for several months. And finally, the firm said, “We need to create this position and we want to offer this position to you.” It’s been a real honor to be the first person in this full-time position where I'm able to leverage the resources of a law firm to support people in the community who lack access to justice. It is a wonderful and beautiful and meaningful position to be in. I'm just glad to have this opportunity.

MR: How long were you thinking of doing pro bono work at Bradley or another firm? How long had that been on your radar?

TG: You know, it's funny with these positions. Someone has described this role as kind of a unicorn. They are growing in popularity. More and more firms are bringing on full-time, part-time, or a-third-of-the-time pro bono people. I certainly didn't come out of law school and think I was going to be pro bono counsel at a law firm someday. I didn't even know these things existed. I did know that I wanted to be a public interest lawyer and I figured there was always going to be some element of pro bono attached to that. After I left private practice and got all those great experiences of learning how to be a lawyer, my first public interest job was to run the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project. This is the state's only statewide pro bono program responsible for servicing all 82 counties of the state and people who are reaching out for legal assistance who can't afford it. After I graduated from law school and had an initial fellowship, I went into private practice and maintained a pro bono docket in addition to my billable work. Then, I transitioned into the public sector where pro bono was so much of the focus of my full-time work. It's just always been a part of my legal career in some way. And I know not everybody has the privilege of being able to do that. I feel very fortunate that I've been able to make it my full-time work and that I've been able to make time for pro bono. I talk to some young lawyers and it's always hard to hear that they work at firms that aren't supportive of them doing pro bono. It’s like, “If you're doing billable work, you don't need to be doing anything else. That's what we value. We don't want you to engage in bar association activities around pro bono work because your focus needs to be on bringing money into the firm.” That's always hard to hear, because I do believe we have a professional responsibility to do pro bono and give back to those who cannot afford to pay what lawyers charge. It's just always been a big part [of my career]. In law school, I got a pro bono award for graduate students because I'd done so much pro bono work. I honestly can't imagine my life not doing it in some form or another.

MR: You talked about this earlier. It's an access to sufficient legal aid issue and pro bono is a way to try to remedy some of that. But what are some of the structural barriers that make access to legal aid not accessible for some communities? Can you talk through what you've seen in your career?

TG: Yes, and I hate to say it, but a lot of it comes down to money. And I hate using that as an excuse for a lot of things, but it does. I mean, that inhibits access for a lot of people—their inability to pay for legal services. That comes down to money, but also a just system both in the civil and criminal spaces. We must fully recognize that everybody should be able to have access to services that help them manage their legal issues. Those are systemic issues that often prevent people from getting meaningful access to justice. And as you said, pro bono is a big part of that. We must have lawyers who understand and appreciate that we've been given and obtained a special set of skills and expertise that can be beneficial to help people access justice. That just is what it is. But there are other parts to this. When it comes to systemic change, we need to understand and address the long-standing issues in our society that prevent meaningful access to justice. These are the “isms”—racism, classism, sexism. Those are big things that we need to have difficult conversations about. Unless we have conversations that address those things that inhibit access, we're constantly going to find ourselves in a bit of an access to justice crisis. Another thing is the need for regulatory reform. We need to understand and revisit regulations that make the justice system dependent on lawyers. It doesn't reach out and consider what other people can bring to ensure access to justice. The justice system is one that was designed for and by lawyers. I mean, that's just a fact. The problem with that is: How does that service all the others who need access to justice and can't afford lawyers? So we must look at some regulatory reform. Another thing is that we've got to be innovative. We can't have the same sort of stagnant approaches to justice that we've had for decades and centuries. We must be willing to innovate. We must be willing to look at things like how legal technology can help improve access to justice. Imagine crossing the thresholds of some of our courthouses and not knowing the first thing to do because you don't have a lawyer there to guide you through that process. So, there are web platforms out there that literally walk people through everything they need to know once they get to court. Those things are tremendous and there are lots of evolving technologies like that that are designed to really help facilitate access to justice. It's great to see those resources growing in popularity and in scope to help people who need it.

MT: It's great to hear that there are innovations and things are trending in the right direction. But based on what I'm hearing from you, there’s still a long way to go. We're not there yet, not to diminish [what’s been done]. In one sentence, or a mini-sentence, or even a few sentences, what does a more equitable legal system look like to you? Say we've gotten there, X number of years in the future. What does it look like?

TG: It’s such a good question. And yeah, I'm going to have to give you more than one sentence. What I will tell you is that what it looks like for me is equalized access. It is people feeling like they have had their day in court. They have been able to utilize their voices to be able to gain access to court. Hopefully, regardless of the outcome of their situation, they can at least leave the courthouse or whatever legal proceeding they might have been involved in feeling like they had an opportunity to be heard. That's critical because too many people do not feel that way and they're very suspicious of the legal system. They feel like it's designed against them. And I must be honest. In many instances, it is. Those are legitimate feelings and that's something that we as a legal profession must take on to make it better for people. I also think it is important for more and more lawyers to heed the call to pro bono legal services and systemic change. Lawyers should recognize that we have a role as lawyers to make the justice system fair and accessible. Yes, we can do that through pro bono, but we also can do that in much bigger and broader ways. We can have more of an impact and affect more and more people along the way.

MR: Earlier, you mentioned your go-to sayings for attorneys who are interested in pro bono, but it's not a possibility based on their firm. What do you say to that attorney?

TG: I would say, “You know, we all have requirements to do continuing legal education.” We must get CLE credits every year to maintain our law licenses. Think about taking the courses that focus on social justice and ways that you can have an impact in your community. So, at a minimum, you're raising your awareness and you're becoming in tune to the needs of the community. When I’m able to address those things for those attorneys that are incentivized to do pro bono through their firm or organizations, I tell them to please volunteer. That could mean start at a help desk where it's a short-term, limited scope pro bono opportunity for you to see the depth and scope of need. Before I came to my firm in a pro bono management role, one thing that I did not appreciate is assuming that people know that there are people out here who can't afford lawyers. People don't appreciate the fact that there are people who are struggling out here. That exposure is important. Allow people to find ways to use their skills so they stay within their wheelhouse if they want. If you are a transactional lawyer, do transactional pro bono. If you're someone who likes civil rights work, then fine, do that type of work. You don't even have to do something that's different from what you normally do. You can stay right there in your comfort zone. But if you're willing to step out of your comfort zone, there are so many ways that you can help people and develop professional skills along the way. I really like working with new lawyers to the law firm because they are not only looking for ways to give back and meet their professional obligation to serve, they're also really interested in ways to develop their professional skills. One of the things I enjoy doing is finding pro bono opportunities for them that allow them to do both. They might have their first hearing and that is their pro bono case. They might have their first appellate oral argument in a pro bono case. So, they're not only able to help someone who needs it with the backing and resources of their firm, they're also able to develop rich professional skills that can help them in their billable work. If you can't do it at the levels that others can, then still find ways to raise your awareness so you can be in tune to what's happening around you in your community and outside of your law firm.

MT: Tiffany, thank you so much for joining us. It was honestly such a pleasure to chat with you. For those who can’t see us, Mary and I have been beaming and smiling the whole time. Thank you so much.  

TG: Thank you for the opportunity. I've really enjoyed it. If you can't tell, I'm a little excited, passionate, and enthusiastic about what I do. I enjoy talking about it and cheerleading pro bono. And more than that, I enjoy finding ways to support people who society has not been there for in the ways that it should, quite frankly. I do that through pro bono. But there are so many ways that we can give back to people who need it the most, and I think we should all be looking for those ways.

MR: I very much echo that sentiment. This was such a pleasure for you to join us. We love when people are passionate. It makes for great conversation. So, thank you, Tiffany. And for Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris.

MT: I’m Mila Taylor.

Both: Signing off.

Nominate the Stellar Women in Your Life