In 1983, fresh out of UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill, Jim Barrett arrived in Asheville for a fellowship at Pisgah Legal Services. The 5-year-old legal aid organization served six counties in Western North Carolina. After the fellowship, Pisgah Legal offered Barrett a job. He’s been there ever since, doing stints as a community development and housing attorney before becoming executive director of Pisgah Legal in 1993.
When Barrett retires this summer, he will have put in 40 years at the nonprofit, seeing it expand to 15 programs — including immigration law, elder law and health care — and covering 18 counties. Speaking with Xpress at Pisgah Legal Services’ offices on Charlotte Street, he attributes the nonprofit’s success to a perfect alchemy: 39 staff lawyers, 250 pro bono lawyers and dozens of volunteers.
Barrett spoke with Xpress about how he has avoided burnout, his advice to young lawyers and North Carolina’s problem with “legal deserts.”
This interview has been edited for length and condensed for clarity.
Looking back on your 40-year career, is there a program you are the most proud of?
I’m overall proud of our track record and the ability to expand to more counties. The counties that surround Buncombe, many of them don’t have very many lawyers. If they ever had more than a handful [of lawyers], they are down to a handful now, and a lot of the lawyers in those smaller counties are older. In North Carolina, we have 40-some counties that are considered “legal deserts” because they don’t have enough lawyers. [By definition, one attorney per 1,000 residents.] That’s not great for society or democracy, in my opinion. So if we can have a couple of lawyers in Burnsville, that makes a lot of difference.
What is an issue that Pisgah Legal has focused on that some people may not be aware of?
Helping people get their driver’s licenses back. I’m told there are a million people in North Carolina who don’t have their driver’s licenses. Say you got a ticket in Eastern North Carolina when you went to the beach and you didn’t go to court because you didn’t have the $200 fine. The penalty for not appearing is they take your license away. You have to deal with the bureaucracy of DMV to get your license back. But maybe you’re caught driving without a license before you do that. And you get another fine.
How has Pisgah Legal’s focus changed over the years?
Ten years ago, we didn’t help people get health insurance in the same way we do now. And four years ago, we didn’t help people with their tax returns. But we realized our clients — below $20,000 in income most of the time — don’t have to file tax returns, so they’re missing the child tax credit. They’re missing their earned income tax credit. Sometimes they’re missing the Affordable Care Act tax credit. If you don’t file tax returns, you wouldn’t know [about those opportunities].
It sounds like Pisgah Legal has had to be adaptive to whichever legal issues are facing low-income people at the moment.
We’ve had to adapt to what we could get funding for. During the Great Recession, we had funding to stop foreclosures because there were so many foreclosures. It was trendy with foundations and the government to fund things that would cause you to not lose your home. And that money went away. In the [COVID-19] pandemic, other money came available — the American Rescue Plan Act money. So that helped us until it ran out.
Pisgah Legal works with a lot of clients dealing with tough situations: survivors of domestic violence, people who are struggling to get health care, more recently Afghans who fled the country after the Taliban took control. How have you prevented burnout?
Not being on the front lines [as a lawyer] after the first 10 years made it somewhat easier to avoid burnout, because I wasn’t hearing the difficult stories firsthand. On the other hand, I had to adjust to getting my job satisfaction vicariously through other people’s success and their good work.
We help thousands of people every year, so that’s its own reward. And although it’s always a struggle to get the funding to keep doing it, it’s like a giant puzzle to come up with that funding every year. There’s some satisfaction in being able to serve more people the longer you do it.
I have also tried to pace myself and not try to work 50-60 hours a week. I now average about 45 [hours a week]. Some people flame out by working superlong hours.
Tell me more about how helping people has been its own reward.
I’ve always felt like I was called to do this [work] and committed to it, but the forces of poverty are out of your control. You’re effecting as much change as you can and trying to be as broad in the services as possible. At the same time, you’re always up against the fact that the people with the money don’t appreciate the value of what we do.
The politicians don’t understand how much money we’re saving them. They don’t understand how much more expensive it would be if we weren’t getting people out of domestic violence, if we weren’t preventing people from being homeless, if we weren’t helping people get off the streets by getting them disability income.
I guess I’m just stubborn. My mother calls it stubborn — I’d rather stay persistent. [laughs] Perseverant. Because in the end, I was lucky to be paid to do something that was fulfilling, whether I was a staff attorney or executive director. A lot of people don’t get that kind of job. It’s unusual that you get a job that is so fulfilling. I feel grateful for that.
So what are your plans for retirement?
I don’t have a second career in mind. … I have not been able to be active in political things since I’ve been director. I don’t have any desire to run for office, but I would like to volunteer in election work. That was one reason why I [planned to] stop working the first of August.
I like to garden, so I will look forward to doing that more effectively. Sometimes I miss the season because I’m so busy.
What advice would you give to a young lawyer?
I had a mentor growing up, the father of a friend of mine. We were riding to a football game and he said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said, “Well, I think I might want to be a lawyer. But there’s so many lawyers. I don’t know if the world needs another lawyer.” He said, “There’s not enough good ones.”
So the advice is, if you want to be a good public servant, the law is a great place to do it. Because there’s always room for another good one.