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Changing the System

Starling Underwood works behind the screen to improve access to justice

Published in 2021 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine

Starling Underwood likes the analytic nature of his work as a senior lawyer on Kilpatrick Townsend’s e-discovery team. He likes the thrill of the hunt for hot documents and the rhythm of his research; the preparation required to outline critical issues for the case attorneys in advance of depositions. 

But he also likes helping people in a more tangible way. He reflects on the many weekends as a 7th-grade student that he spent sitting around the kitchen table of a family friend who, unprompted, offered his time to help Underwood prep for his SATs.

“There were always people in my life as I was growing up that were willing to dedicate resources or time to me, and paying that forward is important,” says the firm’s 2018 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. “The firm gives us ample opportunity to do this work, and I pay it back when I can.” 

Pre-pandemic, Underwood was working on bringing a program to the Winston-Salem area that would allow attorneys to become more involved in pro bono. “The concept was to create bite-sized opportunities for lawyers who want to get involved but can’t fully dedicate the hours on a full representation; maybe they can spend three to four hours at a workshop helping with driver’s license restoration,” he says. 

But Underwood’s service is of the full-size nature. For the past two years, he has been involved in Southern Poverty Law Center v. United States Department of Homeland Security. At the crux, Underwood says, is a lack of access to justice for immigrant detainees in facilities in Georgia and Louisiana. 

His part of the effort includes discovering documents in which the centers admit they need more rooms for lawyer-client meetings, or finding particular language in the centers’ policies. “Then we can see where these centers are not following their own policies, and how we can change that so everyone has the right to counsel that’s guaranteed under the Constitution,” Underwood says. 

For Underwood, success will look like new telephone and video conferencing systems and the construction of additional confidential meeting spaces.

“These are the types of things that help change systems,” he says.

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