Advising 450 out-of-state pro bono lawyers along with 30 Mississippi lawyers and 120 law students on how to help thousands of people recover from "the biggest natural disaster we've ever seen" is overwhelming, Crystal Utley says leaning forward, her pale blue eyes widening.
"I am the Equal Justice Works-AmeriCorps Attorney," Utley says with a smile. "My host site is the Mississippi Center for Justice, and my position is the Katrina Legal Aid and Pro Bono Coordinator."
Luckily, what Utley actually does is easier to explain. "It's people coming in with a problem, and we figure it out," Utley says. "I spend most every day advising pro-bono attorneys in Washington, D.C., how to respond to FEMA, and what's the status of FEMA since it's al-ways changing."
A native of Holly Springs who moved to Jackson at age 6, Utley never intended to practice public law. After graduating from St. Andrew's Episcopal School, she went to the College of Charleston for her undergraduate degree, returned to Mississippi College for her law degree, and then moved back to Charleston where she was working as a premises liability and medical malpractice attorney when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Though the storm affected Utley's family—her mother's Ridgeland restaurant, Fratesis, had its roof blown off—it wasn't until Utley got appendicitis in March 2006 that she decided to re-direct her career.
As she recovered, Utley took time to think. "I started praying, 'please guide me,' and it was almost like I closed my eyes, and I was here (in Jackson)," Utley says. Two months later, Utley quit her job, put her things in storage and moved to Fondren where she now lives when she is not attending to business in Biloxi.
"I like feeling like I'm serving a purpose," Utley says. "I'm not spinning my wheels. I like being busy, and I like talking to people, I mean I have clients who I really care about." She realizes that her work is unique: "None of us ever had to deal with this before. You can practice law for 20 years and not have dealt with FEMA or the magnitude of contractor fraud we see—it's crazy."
Now that Utley has found her niche, she says that she is staying put in Mississippi, at least for now. "I don't think I'll ever go back to a normal law practice," Utley says. "There's enough work in Mississippi to keep me busy."
Crystal Utley is incredible. Despite her busy schedule (an understatement at best), she made time to sit down with me and get me up to speed on post-Katrina Mississippi. She also put me in touch with "Guadalupe Silva," one of the two main protagonists of "Mal Tiempo, Buenas Caras." This is a Jacksonian I wanted to do for awhile. Nice job, Sarah!