Atticus Finch Society ensures legacy of Access to Justice
“. . .in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality.” – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Atticus Finch’s stirring words ring true and deep and make Atticus Finch the personification of the exemplary lawyer. In serving the legal needs of the poor and those no one else would represent, Atticus Finch epitomizes the type of professional and person lawyers strive to be.
As the personification of equal justice in Alabama, Atticus Finch stands side by side with the universal icon of The Lady of Justice. Blindfolded, she carries the scales of justice in one hand and a sword in the other. She symbolizes the fair and equal administration of the law, without corruption, avarice, prejudice, or favor.
The Atticus Finch Society lays a permanent cornerstone for the Alabama Law Foundation and the charter members of the Atticus Finch Society stand as the pillars.
The Alabama Law Foundation is the charitable, tax-exempt organization of the Alabama State Bar. We are the HEART of the Alabama State Bar. The Foundation provides justice for those in need through programs funded by the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) Program. The Alabama Law Foundation distributes IOLTA money through grants to organizations that provide free legal aid to eligible recipients in civil cases, for projects that improve the administration of justice, and for law-related education.
The downside to IOLTA funding is that the funds are tied to interest rates. If rates are lower, less income is generated that can be distributed to programs that help those in need. A stable source of income is essential to the Alabama Law Foundation’s work and the programs it supports.
The Atticus Finch Society was created in 2005 to provide that stability, establishing an endowment fund and an income stream not tied to IOLTA fund interest rates. The idea was the brainchild of Irving Silver, Senior Partner at Silver, Voit & Garrett P.C. in Mobile, Alabama, together with Sam Franklin, who was then the Chairman of the Alabama Law Foundation Board.
At the time, interest rates were down, and as a result, the Alabama Law Foundation was not able to award as many grants. Several fundraising ideas were discussed, but Silver was skeptical that outside donors would be willing to contribute money they perceived was being used to pay lawyers to provide services. Recognizing that lawyers make their living from the legal system, why not ask lawyers for the endowment’s seed money, and at the same time create a program with potential for perpetual growth, he suggested.
Silver and Franklin approached author Harper Lee to request permission to name this new fundraising initiative after the ideal lawyer from her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird – Atticus Finch. With Lee’s blessing, the Atticus Finch Society was established. One hundred charter members donated $10,000 each, payable over three years, securing $1 million for the permanent endowment. At an average rate of 5 percent interest, each million dollars of endowment can provide $50,000 a year, inflation adjusted on a perpetual basis.
“Civil access to justice for people who can’t afford it is extremely important,” Silver said. “Are we really true to our commitment as lawyers – and human beings? Aren’t these people entitled to justice, and not justice only if they can afford it?”
The Atticus Finch Society recognizes the need and acknowledges those whose courage, honor, and sense of duty compels them to act. The endowment secures the future of the Alabama Law Foundation’s work to make access to justice a reality for all Alabama citizens.
Rick Davidson, a lawyer with Davidson, Davidson, Umbach & Forbus in Auburn, Alabama, was a new Alabama Law Foundation Board member when the Atticus Finch Society was created. All Board members were asked – or expected – to support the new venture to create a permanent endowment. He and his wife, Kelly, are Charter Members.
“Ultimately, the Atticus Finch Society parallels the mission of the Foundation itself,” Davidson said. “You’re taking the ultimate lawyer, one of the greatest literary characters in our country’s history, and attaching those ideals and beliefs. It’s a legacy type of gift that impacts for decades. Our contribution is going to be part of that endowment forever. When I’m long gone, it will still play a part in helping poor people to access the courts and find help.”
Mary Margaret Bailey is a lawyer with Frazer Greene LLC in Mobile, Alabama, a past Alabama Law Foundation Board President, and an Alabama Law Foundation Fellow. She joined the Atticus Finch Society in part to honor her father, Judge Bob Kendall, Presiding Judge of the Mobile County Circuit Court, who passed away in 2005.
“I had seen mentions of the Atticus Finch Society in the course of my practice, and looked to see who was involved and it is an impressive list of people,” Bailey said. “I had inherited some money from my father, and wanted to do something special with it, something he might appreciate. I viewed it as a good way to honor my father.”
It wasn’t until she became an Alabama Law Foundation board member that she really saw the impact of the gift. “It was when I joined the Board that I really understood the whole point of the Atticus Finch Society helping to fund the endowment for the Foundation and even out the funding for the grant recipients,” she said. “I didn’t really understand that at the time I joined. When I learned about that I really appreciated that part of it.”
Initially, she said, it was all about legacy. “The [Alabama Law Foundation] Fellows program is exclusive to 1 percent of lawyers in the Alabama State Bar, so that’s an honor, but Atticus Finch is even a step above that as more exclusive,” Bailey said. “Even after I’m dead and gone, my name will still be on that list of people. The exclusivity is important – the permanency of it and the caliber of people who are a part of it. You’re forever part of doing something really good in the state of Alabama.”
Silver would like to see the Atticus Finch Society revitalized. He believes there is a new generation of lawyers ready to create a legacy, just waiting to be asked.
“The idea was to start with 100 and that would be our $1 million and we’d keep going. Now it’s more than 10 years later. Why can’t this be the best funded, best-endowed fund for access to civil justice in the state of Alabama?” he said.