For more than 40 years, David A. Webster has worked to empower those in need
Published in 2013 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 21, 2013
Updated on October 8, 2019
In 1970, fresh off an Alabama appeals clerkship and fueled by a desire to make a difference, David A. Webster began considering a career with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. But he first shook up the Atlanta legal scene by representing an unlikely client: himself.
“Georgia required that you be a resident of Georgia for a year before you could get signed up for the bar. So [Legal Aid and I] put our heads together, and we decided that was open to constitutional challenge,” he says. “My first experience in court was arguing—even before I was a lawyer—to three federal judges about my own status as a lawyer.”
He won, intending to only stay at Legal Aid for a year. “I remember talking to the wife of [a] federal judge … and she said, ‘If you stay a year, you will stay,’” Webster says.
He stayed for six and a half years. In 1976, he had a companion case to a Social Security disability case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the case was turned aside for jurisdictional reasons. Despite the loss, his client said to him, “You have empowered me. You have given me a new sense of myself.”
Those words stuck with Webster. After leaving Legal Aid he embarked on a trip around the world; he worked at the Legal Services Corporation, at Emory University as a law professor, and in private practice; but Legal Aid kept calling him back. He did a stint as its director of litigation and, until early 2012, was its general counsel. Even as he opened an appellate-law solo practice in 1997, he continued pro bono work for the organization. He is also a part-time employee.
“I really enjoy working on the kinds of problems that Legal Aid has. I enjoy working where I can still make a difference in terms of the outcome and the way it can affect people’s lives,” Webster says.
He has also handled some of Atlanta Legal Aid’s biggest cases.
Starting in 1981, he helped serve more than 1,800 Cubans held at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary after refugees flooded into the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift. “Castro took advantage of that situation to clean out some of the jails and mental institutions, so it was a distinctly mixed population,” Webster says. “And the federal government’s reaction was to lock up everybody. … If people don’t have the proper papers to get into this country … they’re still considered as if they’re abroad, and therefore, the government took the position that they had no rights.”
Legal Aid fought for over 10 years for the Cubans’ due process and appealed their indefinite detention—a question that a 2005 Supreme Court decision finally resolved in another case, ruling that any inadmissible aliens detained for issues such as prior criminal charges should be deported or released within six months.
He also worked on the landmark Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., which stated in 1999 that individuals with disabilities couldn’t be forced to stay in institutions if doctors deemed them able to live in less-restrictive community settings. Some have called it “the Brown v. Board of Education of disability rights,” Webster says.
Today Webster spends significant time mentoring fellow Legal Aid attorneys. Steve Gottlieb, Atlanta Legal Aid’s executive director, shared a story from a summer law student about a case strategy meeting.
“People said, ‘What do you think, Dave? What should we do?’ And before Dave said what he thought … he looked at this summer student and said, ‘Henry, what do you think about this case?’” Gottlieb says. “It was the dignity that he gave to that student that has always been Dave Webster.”
Legal Aid recently developed a project in which Webster—who edits and re-edits his own work—teaches writing skills. “The biggest advice I try to give to young lawyers is to argue like lawyers: to argue argumentatively,” Webster says. “Sometimes they come out of law schools with the more academic approach … and that’s not necessarily the best approach.”
Webster’s dedication to Legal Aid hasn’t gone unnoticed. The State Bar of Georgia awarded him the 2012 Dan Bradley Award for a career committed to legal services for the needy.
“Legal Aid is family,” he says.