Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 29, 2016

Susan Gruber’s Volunteer Lawyer of the Year acceptance speech

Attorney Susan Gruber, recipient of Legal Aid of East Tennessee’s Volunteer Lawyer of the Year Award. - Photograph by David Laprad

It is a great honor to be named the Bruce C. Bailey Volunteer Lawyer of the Year. When I heard I was to receive this award, I took a good look at these two frames listing the previous recipients. I read the quote from Mr. Bailey in the first frame about the role of volunteers in equal access to justice, and the one in the second from Learned Hand admonishing us that we cannot keep our democracy if we ration justice. As I thought about those words, I realized that being a volunteer lawyer has changed me. It has changed my outlook on the law and what it means to me to be a lawyer.

I have to be honest: It wasn’t my dream to become a lawyer; my dream was to be a stay-at-home mom. But that was a dream that required blessings beyond my control, and I was a practical person. I needed to support myself, and practicing law would pay the bills. My dream did come true, though. I ended up marrying the best man, and we eventually had two incredible children. I was fortunate to be able to stay home with them, so I left the law behind without another thought, certainly without any consideration of people’s access to justice or any part I might play in that.

Years later, when I started volunteering as a lawyer, I still wasn’t thinking about access to justice. I was still thinking mostly about myself. What if something happened, and I needed to pay the bills again? I needed a backup plan. Besides that, our kids were growing up fast. Would I want to practice law again after they went off to college? I needed a way to explore my options and get back up to speed, and I found a way to do that by volunteering.

Legal Aid became my new law school, my independent study course, if you will, a way to try out new practice areas and get caught up on the law. Later, I expanded my volunteering to include the Immigration Office at Catholic Charities so I could learn even more. But volunteering soon led to discoveries that I hadn’t anticipated. I made human connections I didn’t expect with the people I helped. I cared about the grandmother whose social security check was being wrongfully garnished. I was excited for the man who was applying to become an American citizen. I admired the daughter who worked through her grief as we settled her father’s estate.

At the same time, I was also beginning to see how vulnerable people can be and what can happen to them when they don’t have a lawyer. I helped another attorney on a case that drove that point home. I talked at length with his distraught client about how her landlord had been intimidating her. He didn’t approve of her relationship with a man from a different ethnic group, and had come by with a bunch of his buddies during a cold snap to remove the heating unit from her apartment. While they were at it, they took the refrigerator, too, and finally, the front door. This wasn’t a door that opened to a hallway. It opened to a frosty parking lot across from a busy gas station, and now it was gone.

I could hear the raw emotion in her voice. She felt scared. She felt exposed. She felt powerless.

But she had contacted Legal Aid. And with that, she had the power of an attorney on her side. Her attorney called the landlord, and to my surprise, the landlord backed down on the spot and agreed to put everything back. I think he knew all along that he was breaking the law, but he had bullied this woman because he could, knowing she couldn’t do much to stop him on her own. He backed down, because he knew he couldn’t ignore the law once she had a lawyer.

Access to justice wasn’t some lofty goal for this woman. It was a reality that put her front door back. It is a reality that stands up against abuse and exploitation across our community. I now better understand the words of Mr. Bailey and Learned Hand. I understand what it means for real people to have a lawyer and what can happen if they don’t. The law is no longer a means to an end for me. Access to justice is the power behind our democracy that drives us toward equality, and it has become important to me to help people harness that power.

I would like to thank my husband and children for encouraging me to follow my dreams, for putting up with me while I studied for the bar exam, and for challenging me to be the best person I can be.

I would like to thank the legal community of Chattanooga for accepting me as one of your own, especially those of you who have so generously shared your wisdom and expertise with me.

Finally, I would like to thank Legal Aid for honoring me with this award. Thanks to the entire staff for all you have taught me, for making me proud to be able to call myself an attorney in Tennessee, and for letting me help tip the scales of justice.