Bauer's trimmers: Give her your tired, exploited

Here's how naïve Mary Bauer was at age 21: "I thought people went to law school because they wanted to work for justice."

Now older and wiser, Bauer still hasn't succumbed to cynicism about her profession. In fact, as director of the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers, she's out on the frontlines of helping poor litigants.

For instance, the center is currently representing 14 Mexican tree-trimmers who allege they were forced to live in a stifling locked warehouse, sharing one toilet and shower with 50 to 60 workers. For this privilege, they say they paid a Norfolk landscaper $220 a month. The landscaper denies the allegations, and Bauer won't talk about that case, but she's got one even more horrifying.

"I have pictures," she says, of a motel room in Independence that owners rented for $400 a month to white workers, but refused to allow Mexican Christmas tree harvesters to use, instead charging them between $900 and $1,100 a month to rent rooms with rats and raw sewage running through them.

She clearly admires her clients. "I represent workers who are standing up for justice against enormous odds," she says. "Standing up for their rights and going to court are extraordinary things for them. I don't stand to lose my job or get evicted or be deported" as many of her clients do.

"Mary has the keenest and best instincts for recognizing injustice of anyone I know," says her old boss, Kent Willis, head of the Virginia ACLU. He says that many lawyers have a legal "filter," that lets them look at injustice by applying existing legal theory.

"Mary first sees the injustice, then applies the legal theory. It enables her to more fully embrace a purpose and more creatively apply the law," he says.

Some of her friends from law school, locked in high-paying jobs, take pro bono cases to find some satisfaction in their work. "I don't need to do pro bono," says this 2001 Virginia Legal Aid Lawyer of the year, but she does admit, "I wouldn't mind if they paid me more."

Married to former Charlottesville Legal Aid chief Ed Wayland, Bauer is never going to be accused of going into law for the money. And while she likes the Legal Aid Justice Center's hip new digs at the old Bruton Beauty Supply building on Preston, she seems a bit worried that clients and contributors might think they're a little too nice.

She points to rugs on the floor that photographed in the daily newspaper like expensive orientals. Lest anyone think Legal Aid is squandering funds on décor, "They actually came from Lowe's," Bauer tells a visitor.