"From as far back as I can recall, I have believed that all people are part of the human family, and we should look out for each other," said Judith O'Brien when she received the 2013 Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award on April 11.
O'Brien, retired partner with Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and head of the Pro Bono and Public Service committees, specializes in employment and education litigation and has a career rich in public service, helping to further equal access to justice.
Sutherland partner Charles Lester lauded O'Brien's history at Sutherland and how "she proves that you can be in private practice and still make a tremendous impact on the community."
Sharon Hill, founding executive director at Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, commended O'Brien's "generosity of spirit," in the face of difficult situations. "Judy always asks: ‘Will this project really end injustice,' and works to ensure that it does. She volunteers when others feel it's too much… She sees the silver lining. She makes justice happen."
The Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award is presented each year by Georgia State University College of Law to a Georgia attorney whose overall accomplishments reflect the high tradition of selfless public service that founding dean, Ben F. Johnson Jr., exemplified during his career and life.
"We received a remarkable number of nominations from Judy's peers at Sutherland and Atlanta Legal Aid. It is evident that her ambition to make a difference has truly impacted not only her clients, but the fellow attorneys she's inspired over the years," says Steven J. Kaminshine, dean and professor of law. "Judy's dedication to her community and fighting for legal justice for those without the means to pursue it on their own is admirable. She is the epitome of what this award represents."
Reflecting on her career, O'Brien described a recurring thread that pushed her to connect with her community. "I may not have followed a path of riches, but found instead richness in helping others. There is no substitute for a relationship with a person who is not like you," she said.
O'Brien encouraged others to "remember richness. I encourage each of you to seek richness by reaching out and helping the community. We have an ethical and professional obligation to make sure the poor have access to services we can provide."
O'Brien became a partner in 1991 and the firm's Pro Bono partner in 2008. She has represented various educational institutions to settle personnel matters, state and federal constitutional issues, school policy issues and other specialized aspects of Georgia school law. She also represents employers in lawsuits brought under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Employee Retirement Income Security Act and other federal and state statutes.
Throughout her career, O'Brien has been incredibly active in public and community service—fighting for legal justice despite income, disability or age—both with Sutherland and other organizations in metro Atlanta.
A member of the Board of Directors of Georgia Appleseed for Law & Justice, she has worked hard to encourage Georgia to adopt a new juvenile code. O'Brien worked with several legal volunteers to interview and prepare reports on the existing Juvenile Justice System in Georgia's 10 judicial districts and wrote "Common Wisdom: Making a Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code — A Statewide Summary Report."
For nearly two decades, O'Brien has served as pro bono counsel to Communities in Schools of Georgia and is a board member for Georgia Asylum & Immigration Network and Men Stopping Violence. She received the Men Stopping Violence's Kathleen Carlin Justice Seekers Award in 2009 and the Georgia Asylum & Immigration Network Volunteer Partner of the Year in 2011.
Much of O'Brien's work has been with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. She served as its president and has been active on its board of directors since 1994.