Legal aid lawyer wears many hats

Robin Mayer Works for Poor


By Eleanor Kennedy

Entries in red, green, blue and black ink pepper a desk-size calendar that holds the key to order in one local attorney’s hectic life.

“You can pry the paper calendar from my cold dead hands,” says Robin Mayer, managing attorney for the Lexington office of Blue Ridge Legal Services.

Mayer says she needs her calendar so she knows which of her many professional “hats” she needs to wear on any given day.

She represents poor people for free, serves as a substitute judge in Rockbridge and nearby counties in west-central Virginia and acts as a guardian for children in custody cases when they need someone looking out for their best interest.

Legal aid lawyer Robin Mayer (Photo by Eleanor Kennedy)

“If it’s green on my calendar, it’s substitute judge. If it’s red, I’m the lawyer for the poor person. And if it’s black or blue, it’s an appointment,” Mayer said. “Every day is something different, that’s for sure.”

Leveling the playing field

The Lexington office of Blue Ridge Legal Services is a private non-profit funded by the national Legal Services Corp., United Way, local bar associations and other donors.

Clients whose income levels are 125 percent below the poverty level–$22,350 for a family of four—are eligible for free legal services from Mayer and her colleagues. But not everyone can be helped.

“You’re not entitled to a lawyer in a civil case, so we don’t have to take every single case that walks in the door,” Mayer said. “So if there’s no merit to the case, or the client’s obviously lying, or if it’s so far gone there’s nothing I could do, I wouldn’t take that case. Because there’s so many other cases where I could make a difference.”

About 40 percent of the cases legal aid takes involve family law, including divorces, custody battles and domestic violence, according to the group’s most recent case reports. The caseload also includes everything from landlord-tenant disputes and credit card debt to public benefits and wills and estates.

Most clients received “counsel and advice,” usually over the phone. Because there are so many demands on their time, Mayer said, she and her staff are selective about when they go to court.

“We typically don’t go in unless there’s a lawyer on the other side. We figure that’s up to the judge to figure it out,” she said. “If we need to level the playing field, we will jump on it.”

But sometimes, Mayer says, she’ll think she’s only going to talk to clients on the phone before realizing they need more of her time.

“A couple of these started out as what I thought was going to be telephone advice, but their story was compelling or they learned there was a lawyer on the other side and I thought, ‘Oh shoot, I’m going to have to go with this person,’” Mayer said.

Lexington attorney Don Ellis says he’s seen Mayer in action as both a guardian and an opposing attorney many times over the past six years. He says lawyers like Mayer play key roles in the legal system.

“Having a lawyer is essential when you’re in court,” he said. “Being in court is not a familiar place for most people.”

From pizza to plaintiffs

When Mayer first entered the professional world, she delivered pizzas, not legal advice. After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts with an English degree in 1982, she worked for Domino’s pizza in Richmond for four years. But she says she knew that wasn’t how she wanted to spend her life.

“I suddenly woke up one day and realized, ‘Oh, I do not want to own a Domino’s pizza franchise. Whatever will I do?’” Mayer said.

She says it didn’t take long for her to figure out a solution. “I just had this thought before I went to bed. I just thought, ‘Oh I’ll go to law school and work at legal aid,’” Mayer said.

She graduated from the University of Richmond School of Law in the spring of 1990, got her first job as a legal aid lawyer later that year and never looked back. Over the past 21 years, she’s worked at offices in Danville, Culpepper and Lexington.

“It’s what we like to see,” said John Whitfield, the organization’s executive director. “We want people who want to come to legal aid and then stay here because they want to make a career of it. Those are the best legal aid lawyers.”

Mayer says her commitment to legal aid only wavered once. About 10 years ago, hearing “heart wrenching” stories from the “poorest of the poor” began to wear on her, she said.

“Somehow I just got over it,” she said.

After her brief burnout, Mayer says, she took on new responsibilities. She serves as a substitute judge in district courts, sometimes taking calls at 6 in the morning to cover for a sick judge.

She is frequently appointed to represent children when someone needs to look out for a child caught in the middle of a custody battle. She also stands up for children in abuse and neglect cases.

“The substitute judging has been a blessing,” Mayer said. “That’s really broadened my knowledge base.”

It’s not uncommon for squares on her paper calendar to list multiple appointments in two places at the same time. The conflicts force her to juggle her time, but Mayer said she wouldn’t trade her hectic life for anything.

“I have had hundreds of clients, maybe thousands, over the years, but they were all real people and that was great,” she said. “It’s been the perfect career.”