Amid a mounting eviction crisis throttling Georgia’s legal system, some organizations have enlisted law students to help people access rental assistance and avoid displacement. 

The Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP), a nonprofit that provides free legal help to the 154 counties outside of metro Atlanta, is among the organizations that’s seen this “all-hands-on-deck moment” as an opportunity to train the next generation of attorneys while fighting to keep people in their homes, said Alexandra Eichenbaum, GLSP’s director of pro bono innovation.

“They’re working like a law firm,” she told Atlanta Civic Circle of the Georgia State University, Emory University and University of Georgia law students GLSP has utilized to prevent and fight eviction filings like a bona fide lawyer might. 

During the pandemic, which has exacerbated an already dire housing affordability crisis across the state, GLSP has had seven or eight law students at a time working with people at risk of displacement. Their job largely entails interviewing prospective clients and helping them navigate the cumbersome Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program.

Georgia is among the slowest states in the nation when it comes to distributing the federal ERA money, having disbursed only slightly more than 5 percent of the $552 million allocated by the U.S. Treasury Department, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

“Many folks applied for these funds months and months ago, but their applications have gone nowhere,” Eichenbaum said, nodding to how inundated GLSP and other organizations are with requests for assistance in the wake of sluggish ERA spending. The students are charged with identifying possible snags in the application process, “and we run it up the flagpole to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA),” she said.

Mike Monahan, GLSP’s pro bono director, added that “pro bono programs are not really set up to give volunteer lawyers emergencies or chaos,” so the law students’ work has been crucial. The students can help dozens of clients a week, he said.

The Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) has also deployed law students to curb the swell of evictions. 

“Law students volunteer regularly with the Housing Court Assistance Center,” Cole Thaler, co-director of AVLF’s Safe and Stable Homes Project, said of the walk-in clinic at the Fulton County courthouse. There, they help tenants file answers to eviction filings. 

He told Atlanta Civic Circle that law students also help run AVLF’s Eviction Phone Bank by calling tenants who have upcoming eviction hearings and direct them to financial and legal assistance. 

In rare cases, law students are even allowed to represent clients in court, albeit with the supervision of a bar-certified lawyer. 

It’s imperative for law students to know they’re part of the legal community — and that their role is vital during the pandemic — especially considering the unprecedented volume of landlord-tenant cases firms are now addressing, Eichenbaum said.

She said, “We’ve got to figure out ways that we can incorporate law students, paralegals and other legal professionals as part of the response to what we consider to be truly one of the worst crises we’ve seen in a very long time.”

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