A paralegal told Michael Forton his very first case was impossible to win.
Forton was a law student when he advised a man who had been laid off and was trying to collect unemployment. His client said he trusted Forton and wouldn’t blame him if he lost the case. Losing, however, would come with a heavy cost to his client: The man and his family would have to return to Haiti.
Forton was determined. He learned that if someone worked for a temporary employment agency in Florida and was hired as an employee, the worker could collect unemployment.
“We went to the hearing, and we won – and so I could sleep again,” he said.
Forton has been taking on similar cases ever since.
In July, he became the Director of Advocacy for Legal Services Alabama, where he will focus on impact litigation.
Legal Services Alabama is a state-wide nonprofit law firm that provides free legal representation to over 10,000 poor Alabamians each year in civil cases. Forton wants the agency to plan, prepare and file cases that go beyond the individual and improve the legal system or the law for everyone.
The agency is currently waging a battle within the state of Alabama about garnishments for residents who make less than $1,000 per pay period. Garnishing 25 percent of an income from someone who makes so little can destabilize a family, Forton said. In the wake of the mortgage crisis, the agency is also helping residents prevent foreclosure and retain ownership of their most valuable asset.
Those are just two reasons Lawrence Gardella, who retired as the Director of Advocacy for Legal Services Alabama earlier this year, is pleased with the choice of his successor. Forton, he said, has a real passion for helping poor people and approaches cases creatively.
“It’s not always being locked into the obvious way of solving a problem but really looking at the broadest possible solution for a client,” Gardella said.
James A. Tucker, Executive Director for the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, has known Forton since he was in law school. Tucker said Forton’s work at Legal Services Alabama demonstrates the fundamental truth that every client deserves the best representation the attorney can provide, despite the client’s ability to pay or his station in life.
“Mike is the living, breathing embodiment of what is required of the best public interest lawyers,” Tucker said. “He works just as hard, or harder, for his clients as any new associate at a big firm is expected to work. Several years ago, when he was asked why his caseload was higher than that of other attorneys, he replied simply that he had clients who needed him.”
Practicing public interest law can be exhausting, but Forton didn’t let the pressure of his cases weigh heavy on his shoulders. Forton credits his time clerking in law school with preparing him for his career in public interest law. Sometimes his clients thanked him; sometimes they didn’t. “If I hadn’t been prepared, I wouldn’t have been able to stay,” he said.
Forton is, however, acutely aware that the work of his firm can be very different from that of a private firm because most of his clients cannot otherwise afford an attorney. “When you work for a larger firm and you tell someone you can’t help them, it doesn’t hurt your soul,” he said.
Forton has represented those who might not otherwise find representation, making sure they have access to the legal system and that the law is applied the same way for everyone.
“What I really love is the things we do are changing the future,” Forton said. “I honestly believe the work we do is making the state, the country and even the world a better place.”