PARKERSBURG — Lisa Hartline overcame personal obstacles with poverty and homelessness to go to law school. At age 41, she’s a year away from her degree, and she plans to turn around and help others experiencing the same struggles she did in West Virginia.
This year, Hartline was the inaugural recipient of the Regina Charon Fellowship, which provides a stipend to a West Virginia University College of Law student to spend the summer working at Legal Aid of West Virginia.
The fellowship was created to honor a former Morgantown lawyer and administrative judge, Regina Charon, who worked for North Central Legal Aid of West Virginia after earning her law degree from WVU in 1976. It’s one of many internships funded through the West Virginia Fund for Law in the Public Interest. Hartline will spend 10 weeks working at the Parkersburg office of Legal Aid of West Virginia, with support from a $5,500 stipend.
Charon was one of the first female lawyers in the state. After working for legal aid, she transitioned to private practice as a plaintiff attorney, focusing on employment and family law. She’s remembered for being proud to represent LGBT families in second parent adoptions, as well as being active in the ACLU and the Council for Women’s Concerns at WVU, which helped establish the Women’s and Gender Studies program. She died in 2004 at the age of 58.
Jennifer Powell, executive director of the fund for law in the public interest, told The West Virginia Record that Hartline’s dedication to helping other people facing circumstances similar to her own made awarding her the fellowship a no-brainer.
“We know Regina would be proud,” Powell said. “(Hartline) was kind of an easy pick, I would say.”
The fund was founded in 1987 to raise money to give WVU law students a chance to work with the elderly, poor, children and victims of domestic violence. It works closely with the Public Interest Advocates, a student group at the law school of which Hartline is the vice president-elect.
"Not only does it help people get legal services,but it helps build public interest lawyers," Powell said of the fund. "We have a very dedicated cadre of people who want to do this work."
Hartline told the Record that she first experienced the benefit of public interest law when she was working at the Clarksburg Mission. She said she learned about legal issues faced by clients who stayed at the shelter. They didn’t know what to do because they couldn’t afford an attorney.
“Legal Aid started coming to the mission. … It was a huge benefit to the client. I used them for some legal questions myself,” she said. “That’s what made me want to go into public interest law. There’s a great need for that kind of work.”
At the time, she hadn’t even been to college. But workers at the shelter convinced her it wasn’t too late to get an education. When she realized she had a real interest in law, she thought she was too old to dedicate seven years to school. She’s proved herself wrong since then. This is her second summer working at Legal Aid with the help of a fellowship.
Interns are a critical necessity at Legal Aid. In Parkersburg, three attorneys handle cases from seven counties, Hartline said. She isn’t licensed as an attorney, so her scope is limited, but she’s able to help with research and other lower-level tasks that free attorneys to take more cases.
Legal Aid has 12 interns this year, Erica Pulling, director of development at Legal Aid, told the Record.
“They really do add to the manpower,” Pulling said. “They bring so much energy and enthusiasm to our mission. I think just the office as a whole really benefits from their spirit and their energy.”