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Halifax attorneys made impact with work for Legal Aid

South Boston News
Virginia Legal Aid Society Executive Director David Neumeyer, left, presents a courthouse painting to Carol and Alan Gravitt, 2017 recipients of the Joel C. Cunningham Sr. Award.
SoVaNow.com / September 04, 2017
“Exceptionally competent, conscientious, imaginative and aggressive advocates” — all are words used to describe Halifax attorneys Alan and Carol Gravitt, who were honored Thursday night at The Prizery with the presentation of the second annual Joel C. Cunningham Sr. Award by the Virginia Legal Aid Society.

The Gravitts, former Legal Aid lawyers before going into private practice together in Halifax, were hailed by VLAS executive director David Neumeyer for their collective efforts representing low-income clients with Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley nearly four decades ago. They joined Legal Aid shortly after graduating from University of Virginia, where they attended both undergraduate and law school after graduating high school in Halifax.

Alan and Carol Gravitt worked for Legal Aid for a brief period — they passed the Virginia bar exam in the late 1970s, soon went to work for Legal Aid and left in 1983, spurred by sharp budget cuts to the agency during the Reagan Administration — but in a short time they were able to make an impact.

The Gravitts were involved in several important Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley cases, each aimed at securing the rights of low-income and marginalized clients. They worked on lawsuits brought against a finance company for charging usurious rates on auto loans, against Roanoke County Public Schools for making inadequate provisions for cognitively-challenged students, and against a Christian school that denied a diploma to a student for disciplinary reasons without providing due process and a fair hearing.

“You got into court immediately, and you could do the impact cases,” recalled Alan Gravitt of the experience of working for Legal Aid.

After leaving the Roanoke office to return home to Halifax, the Gravitts built a successful private practice. But they continued to handle pro bono cases for the Virginia Legal Society, volunteering to represent low-income clients in matters ranging from divorce to child custody to adoptions.

They also were frequent volunteers for free telephone call-in nights, where people could gain free legal information over the telephone. They served on VLAS’s pro bono committee in Halifax, and Alan served on VLAS’s board of directors for 20 years.

In mid-2016, they sold their law firm to office associates in Halifax and are winding down towards retirement, staying on long enough to smooth the transition.

The Joel C. Cunningham Sr. Award is named after the Halifax circuit judge who himself was a Legal Aid attorney before going into private practice. Cunningham was later appointed to the bench, becoming western Virginia’s lone African-American circuit judge by the time of his retirement last year. Cunningham, who continues to preside over a handful of cases as a retired judge, was the first winner of the namesake award in 2016.

In remarks Thursday at The Prizery praising the Gravitts, Neumeyer noted a further contribution by the Gravitts to VLAS: Alan Gravitt, he said, devoted many long hours to the VLAS program development committee, which puts together the organization’s five-year strategic plan.

(A new plan is going into effect for the years 2018-2022.) Neumeyer recalled that Alan was so committed to the effort that when he was done, VLAS presented him with a clock — to signify all the time he put into the project.

By making them the recipients of the second annual Cunningham Award, VLAS is seeing that their retirement — and their longtime contributions to legal aid — also do not go by without recognition.

Virginia Legal Aid Society, a part of the federal Legal Services Corporation, was established in 1977 as a non-profit law firm to provide free civil legal services for eligible low-income people in 26 localities in Central, Southside and western Tidewater Virginia. VLAS attorneys and staff provide people who cannot afford a lawyer with civil legal representation in the areas of education, housing, health care, public benefits and family and consumer law.

The VLAS LawLine is toll-free: 1-866-534-5343. The organization can be found online at vlas.org



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