Written By: Karen Worthington
Just ten days after retiring from the bench of the State Court of Bibb County, Bill Adams’ schedule was filled with meetings, research, and a weekly legal clinic at a homeless shelter. His calendar reflected his enthusiasm for working with others to develop the Middle Georgia Access to Justice Council, a collaborative effort to close the justice gap in Macon, Georgia.
In early 2017, research, conversations, prayer, studying, and trial and error prompted Bill to lead an effort to create the Middle Georgia Access to Justice Council, Inc. “As many as 80% of our citizens are unable to get legal assistance when they need it,” says Bill. “This becomes a quality of life issue.” Bill’s retirement plan became creating an entity to connect people who need legal services with lawyers to represent them.
“Retiring from my judgeship was a necessary step to freeing up my time to focus on improving access to justice,“ says Bill. After leaving the bench, he joined Adams Law Firm, founded by his son Brian, and continued the momentum to open the Middle Georgia Access to Justice Council in collaboration with Georgia Legal Services Program, the Macon Bar Association, and Mercer Law School.
Using a multi-pronged approach, the Access to Justice Council will include a lawyer incubator program for new solo practitioners, a virtual legal clinic matching clients and lawyers, and a cadre of volunteer lawyers to represent the underserved. A holistic approach means that when legal services aren’t needed to resolve clients’ concerns, lawyers in the Access to Justice Council network refer people to appropriate resources or services.
Why Access to Justice?
Bill’s commitment to access to justice is a natural continuation of an expansive legal career which impressed upon him the many ways that lawyers solve everyday problems. His experience includes eight years as a federal prosecutor, 13 years representing private practice clients in civil and criminal litigation, and 18 ½ years as a state court judge.
Bill believes the words on the US Supreme Court Building memorialize the highest pledge our country makes to its citizens: “Equal justice under law.” As he looked around his home community of Macon, and through the rest of the country, Bill observed the legal system consistently failing to keep that pledge. The more he learned about the “justice gap,” the more determined he became to close it.
In his weekly visits to Daybreak and Macon Outreach, a day center serving adults facing homelessness, Bill observes obstacles that lawyers can eliminate. Oftentimes, Bill says, people without access to lawyers may not recognize a legal issue – they just see a problem they don’t know how to fix. If they are able to talk with a lawyer, however, the legal issue can be quickly identified and resolved. Bill believes that lawyers have a duty to use their skills to help people overcome obstacles. The Access to Justice Council provides opportunities for Macon lawyers to serve their community in this way.
A Man of Faith and Action
A summary of Bill’s explanation for why, after a successful 40-year legal career, he has started yet another job, is “God led me to this.” When discussing his career and personal transitions, Bill mentions prayer, faith, and reflection as an essential component of his decisions. Both Bill and his wife Cheryl are active church leaders, serving the community through a variety of ministries.
Bill easily characterizes his life as being “so blessed I can’t even begin to fully describe it.” When he talks about blessings in his life, he speaks admiringly of his wife Cheryl, a retired special education teacher, and Kevin, Brian, and Stephen, their three sons who are also serving the Macon community.
Co-residing with his unshakeable faith is a strong sense of civic duty. Bill comes from a family legacy of community service and takes a “pass it on” approach to life. As a young lawyer, Bill benefited from the time and expertise that experienced lawyers generously shared with him. As a result, he never hesitates to mentor less experienced lawyers, and he hopes those lawyers will mentor others.
The Access to Justice Council incubator program recognizes the importance of mentors, utilizing experienced lawyers to help newer lawyers build sustainable solo law practices. Incubator lawyers pay a fee to participate, which covers office space, furniture, equipment, technology and mentoring: necessary ingredients for a successful law practice. In return, the incubator lawyers represent pro bono clients and clients who pay on a sliding scale in addition to full-fee clients.
Supporting Lawyers at the Start and End of Successful Legal Careers
Bill feels privileged to work with lawyers at both ends of their legal careers. For lawyers newer to the practice “with the world in front of them,” he says they still “have a lot of learning to do once they are out of school.” Bill advises, “You’ve got to build good working relationships with everybody: opposing lawyers, the courts, and not just the judges, but the clerks because they know a lot about how the court operates. Learn from everybody you can.”
For lawyers contemplating retirement, Bill says, “Find a way to stay relevant.” Moreover, as one who successfully retired and immediately began another chapter in his legal career, Bill has a suggestion of how to stay relevant: “Sign up with the Middle Georgia Access to Justice Counsel and go represent poor folks.”