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Strength in Numbers
Gary D. Housepian, the new executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands (LASMTC), joins three veteran legal service program directors across the state: Harrison D. McIver is executive director of Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS); J. Steven Xanthopoulos leads West Tennessee Legal Services (WTLS); and David R. Yoder is head of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET).
Harrison D. McIver III has been executive director of Memphis Area Legal Services for nine years. Originally from Georgia, McIver has spent his entire career in the civil legal aid community. "The challenges of having grown up in the segregated South and living through the transition or transformation to a more just society, helped me to develop early on a sense that my goal in life was to pursue equal justice for all humankind, notwithstanding a person's station in life," he says.
"I advocate each and every day that we at MALS must be client-centered and be consistent with that theme in all that we do."
MALS has two offices, one in Memphis and a branch in Covington, Tenn. MALS' four counties have a client-eligible population of 155,000 served by 17 attorneys, two of whom are part-time, and other staff.
McIver's journey to Tennessee had a few twists and turns. He spent the first 14 years of his career in legal services work in Mississippi. Then he was selected as executive director of the now-defunct Project Advisory Group in Washington, D.C. The group was a national organization of legal services programs whose mission was to advocate for legal aid programs. At the time, legal services funding was under attack, and McIver says the experience he gained in that job is invaluable. "I gained skills in advocacy, lobbying and a national perspective on legal services that helps me to this day."
A strong desire to return to the South brought him to Memphis and to MALS in 1998, he says.
J. Steven Xanthopolous was born in Bowling Green, Ky., grew up outside Atlantic City and came to Tennessee in 1980 via the Virgin Islands. He was doing clinical work with HUD in Pennsylvania during the huge flooding disaster that the area experienced in the early '70s when a friend in the Virgin Islands began telling him about the pro bono work that needed to be done there and asked Xanthopoulos to join him.
"Maybe it was the 160 inches of snow we were getting in Eerie at the time," Xanthopoulos says, but the offer sounded perfect.
"The area was a little bit like West Tennessee in that it was very tourist-y but also very rural. I gained so much in terms of learning about multiculturalism and diversity. It was unbelievably exciting and unbelievably stimulating work, but there was also a very serious crime problem there. There began to be a lot of 15- to 20-year-olds committing criminal acts and the criminal acts were becoming political acts, so it eventually just felt like a good idea to move on."
At the time, legal services were expanding in West Tennessee and Xanthopoulos was hired on as a managing attorney in a brand new office in Huntingdon, Tenn.
"It was nice to be able to start from scratch," Xanthopoulos says. "You didn't have to deal with any leftover mistakes from a predecessor, and we had a very dynamic group of people who worked there at the time. [Former Nashville Mayor] Bill Purcell was a staff attorney. [State Senator] Roy Herron was a staff attorney. It was a very exciting time. And I've found that after more than 25 years in this field, it is still very rewarding. I still like to come to work."
There are 17 counties in the West Tennessee Legal Services region " 72,000 people who are eligible for legal aid. In addition to the main office in Jackson, Tenn., there are three other branch offices. Xanthopoulos oversees the activities of 41 staff members, of whom eight are attorneys and 22 are paralegals.
David R. Yoder first became involved in the Tennessee legal services scene in 1993. Originally from Indiana, he had practiced law both there and in Michigan. He first came to Knoxville in 1979 to present a paper written for the U.S. Department of Justice titled "Community Approaches To Spouse Assault," based on programs that were being implemented in Michigan at the time.
"I returned in 1993 to accept the position of executive director of the Knoxville Legal Aid Society, now a part of Legal Aid of East Tennessee. The challenges that were presented by KLAS at the time are what brought me," he says.
"I taught high school political science and coached freshman football after graduating from Purdue University. I also began selling new and used cars while at Purdue and through law school. This allowed me to graduate law school without debt. In fact, I was in legal aid for seven years before generating an annual income as high as my part-time job selling cars while in law school."
Yoder says he learned the value of hard work from those early jobs and from watching his father. "I also learned the value of both success and failure. From sales, which I still consider to be some of the best training for the practice of law, I learned the art of persuasion. Today, a major part of my job is selling and marketing the needs of our clients and legal aid."
Today, Yoder oversees the second largest legal aid program in the state. LAET has a 26-county service area with a main office in Knoxville and five branch offices dispersed throughout the region, serving 300,000 eligible clients with 61 full-time employees, 23 of whom are attorneys.