IN THE NEWS:
21 Young Lawyers Leading Us Into the 21st Century
"I Can Change A Little Part of the World"
The address may not be as glamorous as Beverly Hills 90210, but to Gerry Weber, Atlanta 30307, home of the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is the place he most wants to be. Weber, legal director of the three-person ACLU office, chose the position over a lucrative career in private practice.
Weber graduated summa cum laude and first in a class of 196 from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1989. He clerked for Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Carolyn King from 1989 to 1990. He then became an associate at the firm of Dow, Lohnes and Albertson in Atlanta.
When he was 26 years old, he was offered the position of legal director of the state's ACLU office. "People are always shocked when they first see me in person," he says. "They often mistake me for a law clerk or a delivery person."
At the ACLU, Weber earns about one-third of the salary he made at the law firm. Yet, Weber considers it an advantage to have landed the ACLU position so early in his career. So many people I went to law school with hoped to do this kind of work but are now financially tied in. I am lucky to have started so early.
One of his first cases at the Georgia ACLU involved the successful defense of Cracker Barrel employees' right to peacefully demonstrate against the restaurant chain's "family values" (anti-gay) hiring policy. As co-counsel, he helped to win that 1992 case.
Thanks to his commitment to civil rights work, a Rome, Georgia bookseller no longer fears censorship and book banning from the police; a Dudley, Georgia, public pool is open to blacks and whites alike; and conditions in the Putnam County Jail have improved.
Recently, he helped to enforce the separation of church and state when a lawsuit filed against the Cobb County Commission resulted in the removal of a 10-by-12 foot Ten Commandments placque from the courthouse.
Weber handles from one-third to one-half of the cases that are selected from the more than 500 requests for assistance his office receives each month. He specializes in free speech, homelessness, race, and disability issues. Volunteer attorneys, from the state ACLU membership of 2700, handle the balance of the cases, many of which involve employment law. He also receives assistance from law clerks through a clinical program with Emory University Law School.
Weber is originally from Illinois, but he plans to remain in the South. He says that he has discovered that there is a greater need and a lesser supply of attorneys in the South to effectively handle civil rights work.
The backlogged court system is the most frustrating part of the job, Weber says. Unfortunately, most cases take years to resolve, and sometimes they are moot issues by the time they are finally heard. One of Weber's clients, a man with AIDS was confined by a county health board order without due process of law. By the time he was released, he had only a few weeks to live.
"You just wish you could say, 'Here is what happened to my client -- it's wrong, isn't it?'"
He has found this to be a common experience for lawyers who go into public interest work. For Weber, this frustration has led to a shift over time from a "change-the-world" mentality to a more realistic viewpoint.
"Now I have come to the realization that I can change a little part of the world, and still have a very profound impact on it."
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