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Halifax lawyers inspired by their work for Legal Aid

South Boston News
Alan and Carol Gravitt / August 17, 2017

(The Virginia Legal Aid Society is celebrating its 40th anniversary with reflections on its history and important figures in the organization’s development. This installment on Halifax attorneys Carol and Alan Gravitt is published with permission — Ed.)

Special to the News & Record

You might think that the lives of Carol and Alan Gravitt were set on parallel courses from the start.

They were high school sweethearts in Halifax, married in 1972, graduated from the same college and law school (University of Virginia for both) and have been partners in the same law firm since they opened it in 1983. Both also have been among the most dedicated and impactful pro bono attorneys for Virginia Legal Aid Society.

But fate did help just a bit to nudge them together — twice. The first was the University of Virginia’s decision to accept female students, allowing Carol to transfer after her freshman year at University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

The second was a summer volunteer project during their grad school days. Carol had earned a master’s degree in psychology and planned to continue on to get her doctorate. Alan went straight to law school. They spent the summer volunteering for the Charlottesville Legal Aid Society.

One summer was all it took. Carol was hooked. “I liked what he was doing better than I liked what I was doing,” she said. She switched to law school.

When they graduated and passed the Virginia bar exam in the late 1970s, legal aid offices were opening and thriving throughout and beyond Virginia, boosted by Congress’ 1974 decision to create Legal Services Corporation, a company to fund such programs. They both loved legal aid work, and eventually both became staff attorneys for Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley. (Alan was in private practice for a year before joining Carol.)

“Both were exceptionally competent, conscientious, imaginative and aggressive advocates who believed in their clients and the justice of the cause,” said Henry L. Woodward, Senior Attorney with Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley.

The years in Roanoke were “a great learning ground,” Alan said. “You got into court immediately, and you could do the impact cases.” At the time, legal aid societies that accepted funds from Legal Services Corporation were allowed to pursue class action cases.

The Gravitts were part of several important initiatives from Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley. They challenged Roanoke County Public Schools’ provisions for cognitively challenged students, which included bus rides of up to 90 minutes both ways to a school that isolated them and wouldn’t provide basic programs such as physical education.

They sued a Christian school for not awarding a diploma to a student for disciplinary reasons, saying the school hadn’t provided due process and fair hearings for the student. They sued a finance company that operated as a joint venture with a local car dealership for charging usurious interest rates.

They challenged the local Division of Public Utilities to adjust its rules to be fairer to customers in cases in which a utility wanted to cut off service.

“We were able to do the right thing,” Alan said. “You didn’t have to worry about the dollars.” Since they weren’t collecting client fees, they could choose their cases based on community impact.

But they soon would have to worry about the dollars. President Reagan, who had opposed public funding for legal aid societies during his days as California’s governor, proposed ending support for Legal Services Corporation. The end result, after negotiations with Congress, was a 25 percent cut in funding for 1982, leading to layoffs at legal aid societies throughout the country.

Carol and Alan took stock. They loved legal aid work, but they also saw that one or both of them might lose their job to the budget cuts. “We considered it a push out of the nest,” Carol said.

In May 1983, Carol and Alan Gravitt left Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley together, returned home to Halifax, and started their own law firm.

“I am skeptical, Carol, that anyone else can provide the yeast with which you regularly leavened our bread, or the handicapped and education expertise for which you built our reputation and your own,” Woodward wrote to them upon their departure. “I have no idea, Alan, where we’ll get the bankruptcy depth you’ve given us, or your initiative and imagination in other areas of the law. Thank you both for all you have contributed.”

They moved into a building near the courthouse, lived on the second floor, practiced law on the first and began to build a business from scratch. They tapped their legal aid experience, focusing on domestic law and social service agency work .… Well, at first they focused their practice the way any start-up business does: “Anything that came through the door that we knew how to do,” Alan said.

Starting a law firm from scratch isn’t easy, particularly in an economy that was still emerging from The Great Recession. “Our secretary got more money than we did that first year,” Alan said.

But the move was good for their young family, and business steadily picked up. “I have a willingness to take on the strange case,” Alan said. “Other lawyers would occasionally tell their clients, ‘I don’t know anything about this. Go see Alan Gravitt.’ ”

Carol and Alan were champions of Virginia Legal Aid Society’s pro bono attorney network. They volunteered on a wide range of cases, including divorce, child custody, child support, adoptions, wills and guardianships. They participated in telephone nights, where people could call in and receive free legal education. They served on VLAS’s pro bono committee in Halifax. And Alan served on VLAS’s board of directors for about 20 years.

“We have always been concerned about being available to the public,” Carol said.

Their community work has gone far beyond free legal service to VLAS clients. Carol was been a vital supporter of the Special Victims Coalition in Halifax, a group of providers that coordinates efforts to help serve abused children and other victims. Alan served two terms on the Halifax County School Board. Carol is working on an initiative in the area to improve understanding and foster constructive discussion about race.

As business grew and they took on other attorneys, the Gravitts encouraged their associates to find their own ways of giving back to the community, creating a culture that’s likely to last long past their active involvement in the firm. The Gravitts sold the practice to the firm’s other attorneys July 1, 2016. They have stayed on to help with the transition as they prepare for retirement.

VLAS doesn’t intend to let them walk away empty handed. VLAS is presenting Carol and Alan Gravitt with the second annual Joel C. Cunningham, Sr. Award honoring outstanding contributions in the 10th Judicial Circuit (where Judge Cunningham served) to providing access to justice.

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