At the beginning of January, Johnna Bailey began work as immigration attorney for the Community Legal Center, a resource for the working poor.
“It’s defined as those who are just above the poverty line, meaning that legal aid would not serve them, but it’s still too expensive for them to hire a private attorney,” Bailey said.
In addition to the immigrant justice program, directed by Bailey, there is also, within the CLC, a civil division handling cases such as uncontested divorces, tenant-landlord issues, wills and estates.
Immigration falls under federal law and, because the immigration court for the region is in Memphis, the program services all of Tennessee, Arkansas, the western third of Kentucky and areas north of Jackson in Mississippi. It keeps Bailey and her colleague, Sally Joyner, a 2012 graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, extremely busy.
“We obviously see a lot of clients, many of whom we aren’t able to service just because of capacity, so half of my job is representing those clients, but the other half would be placing those clients with pro bono attorneys,” Bailey said.
She has found the Memphis legal community to be willing and eager to help when called upon and, to that end, the CLC also works to train lawyers who don’t have any previous immigration experience.
“We’re constantly recruiting new pro bono attorneys who would like to donate their time,” Bailey said.
Clinic is held on the first and third Tuesday evenings of every month. Due to the scope of the area involved, with some clients as far away as Chattanooga, Tenn., much is done over the phone, though face-to-face consultations are preferable.
“Ideally, I’m trying to place those clients with a Chattanooga immigration attorney who would volunteer their time free of charge to handle those cases and then, as they come to court, I can handle the court aspect,” Bailey said.
She also has found that immigration judges realize many clients may be coming from so far away and “are pretty generous with allowing you to do telephonic representation.”
The daughter of a minister father and schoolteacher mother, Bailey was born in Little Rock, Ark., but moved around as a child with her family. It was Danville, Ind., she eventually left to attend school at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., where she studied philosophy and theology.
Later, working as a program coordinator for the family literacy program at a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago inspired her to go to law school.
She attended John Marshall Law School in Atlanta and found a mentor in professor Joseph Rosen, who she worked with as an associate in his private immigration group.
The new year brought new surroundings and when her husband, also an attorney, was offered a position as in-house counsel for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, they made the move to Memphis, bringing them closer to family in Arkansas.
“I didn’t actually know what I was going to do, leaving my job in Atlanta,” Bailey said, “but this opportunity with Community Legal Center was almost immediate.”
The job is ideal for her, focusing on her training as an immigration attorney and working within the scope of a nonprofit and the ideals that first led her into law.
“It’s what I dreamed of returning to after law school,” Bailey said.
The work is currently part time, allowing her to spend more time with the couple’s 9-month-old son. The two lawyers named their son Atticus after one of the most famous, fictional attorneys of all time. The family has settled into Memphis nicely, taking advantage of the Cooper-Young Farmer’s Market, the Memphis Zoo and exploring the city’s many barbecue restaurants.
“We’re trying to take advantage of everything that Memphis offers … ,” Bailey said. “It has everything you need as a small family.”
Having seen both sides of the fence first-hand, it is from personal knowledge that Bailey speaks.
“In private practice you have the flexibility of dividing your time between profit cases and pro-bono cases, but I do like being back at a nonprofit,” she said. “It’s a different client base, and I say that with a positive spin. I really appreciate the clients we work with, they’re just so appreciative and very responsive; it’s a welcome change. I’ve enjoyed my time – I say that having only been here for four weeks, but it’s been really good so far.”