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Joe Geever
Stephanie Gross
Joe Geever

The Rewards of Public Interest Law Lure a Fisherman

April 18, 2000 -- Joe Geever quit school at the end of the 11th grade and, like many others in his small fishing community in California, eventually went to work on the ocean as a commercial fisherman.

But the supply of fish began to dwindle and the off-shore fishing industry there went into the tank. Geever, by then in his mid-30s, came east to visit his sister and look for new work. "I'd been kicking myself for not getting an education as a kid," he recalls, and he took some courses at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Then, "I just got hooked on it."

Still thinking a lot about the problems of the fishing industry, he transferred to the University of Virginia and received his B.A. in economics. By now set on some kind of public service career, he entered the University's highly rated law school, because "law school seemed to me a way to make a difference."

He has never deviated from that goal. Last year, because of his commitment to public service, he was named the recipient of the school's first Linda A. Fairstein Public Service Fellowship. This May, still without his high school diploma, he'll receive a law degree at age 46.

The course work has been intense, he says. In the summers he has worked with the local legal aid society, and in a low-income housing clinic, and with a lawyer handling civil rights cases. "It's been rewarding work," he says. "There's a big part of the population that doesn't understand the law and doesn't get legal assistance."

Geever has also made time to work as a drug and alcohol detox technician with the local mental health agency and to organize a self-help group for addicts in prison in Staunton. "It was offering them some support from outside," he says. For prisoners, "it's helpful to know somebody outside cares."

But Geever's main public service interest remains linked with fishing and the water. "I'd been around the ocean since I was a little kid," he says. This summer he will take a clerkship with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Md., where he worked last summer on fisheries law, and he hopes to be able to continue in a position there or in a related agency.

Eventually, he says, he would like to be able to help the fishing industry directly. "In a word, it's in trouble." Fish are depleted from over-fishing, pollution and coastal habitats impacted by development. "The Chesapeake Bay is a prime example," Geever says. "It's a major problem." A long-range hope of his is to help mobilize fishing communities to become more involved in environmental issues to protect their areas and their work. "This is a valuable resource that's being depleted. You just assume it will be there forever and now species are being threatened with extinction."

Geever is happy that the U.Va. law school has been steadily expanding its offerings in public interest law and public service clinic opportunities for students. A student-organized public service conference this year highlighted numerous public-interest law career paths, from the local to the national level, that alumni have followed.

However, the rewards of public service work are not primarily financial, Geever makes clear. A critical factor enabling him to continue his studies has been the law school's offering a low-interest, long-term loan-assistance program for graduates going into public interest fields.

"People going to law school with a vision of public service work may find it tempting not to follow through on that dream," Geever says. There can be significant debts to pay and lucrative job offers in other fields. "You have to be realistic that there will be sacrifices."

Despite the sacrifices, he says of his law school experiences, "I wouldn't trade it for anything."

And the need is great. "There are real problems that are going to take creative solutions."

Joe Geever can be reached at (804) 296-5264 or jpg7v@virginia.edu

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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