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Mark Biernath Provides Help for the Disabled—and a Legacy for Georgia State

Mark Biernath"The judge came in—big guy, wearing his big black robe, a very imposing figure," says Mark Biernath, recalling one of the first times he ever set foot in a courtroom. "And the very first thing he did was he lifted up his robe and pulled out the biggest gun I'd ever seen."

At that point, Mark wasn't even a lawyer—he was a minister in Oklahoma, working on behalf of some families in his parish who were in danger of losing their homes. Yet somehow, the experience didn't scare him away from the legal profession. If anything, it offered a glimpse of the tangible help a lawyer could provide for people in need.

A few years later, shortly after returning to his hometown of Atlanta, Biernath decided to attend the Georgia State University College of Law. And it was there, he remembers, that he finally found his true calling.

"Law school, I loved," he says. "It made sense. I felt like I'd figured out what I wanted to do."

Today he practices special-needs and disability law in Atlanta, where experiences both professional and personal have inspired him to give back to Georgia State in a big way.

A Sense of Purpose

"It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up," says Mark, who started his undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech with the goal of becoming an aerospace engineer. When "calculus made it clear that aerospace engineering was not in my future," he earned a management degree instead, then attended Dallas Theological Seminary and joined the ministry.

It was in that capacity that Mark had his encounter with the gun-toting judge. As head of his church's benevolence ministry, Mark was working with six families who were being evicted after some of their children vandalized a vacant unit in their apartment complex. Unable to find emergency housing for six families at once, Mark was determined to find a workable solution.

"The judge called two cases, both small-claims matters, and took care of them very quickly. It was clear he was a no-nonsense kind of judge. Then our case came up and he addressed the rest of the courtroom: He said, ‘OK, now you've seen how I do this. I'm going to give you guys an hour, maybe you can work it out.' And that hour was when I negotiated with the apartment managers. I think the judge even said, ‘If I have to decide, nobody's going to be happy.' That motivated us to resolve this in a way that I think had a positive outcome.

"Not quite a year later, when things kind of settled down, I talked to my dad about maybe going to law school," Mark says.

"He said that if I got in, he'd pay for half of it. I thought, ‘Well, I can't turn that down.' So I applied to Georgia State. It was the only school that I applied to—the only program where you could go all the way through on an evening schedule."

Tough Lessons in the Classroom—and the Courtroom

Whereas his seminary studies had been abstract and philosophical, Mark's law professors offered an education that was practical and grounded in the real world.

"James L. Bross provided some of the most practical advice that you could receive going into the field of law," he remembers. "He bridged the idealism in law school to the practical applications—this is what the law means, this is the life we were choosing."

Taking evening classes also exposed Mark to "a great mix of classmates" whose varied life experiences offered lessons "that were, I think, just as important as what we were learning from the textbooks. One guy in my study group, for example, was a safety manager for a Fortune 500 manufacturer, and he was familiar with regulations and all that stuff. So when it came to the regulatory law that we were learning, he brought great perspective to that—how it actually worked when an OSHA inspector showed up on site."

By the time Mark earned his law degree in 2001, he was raising a daughter and caring for his wife, both with unique medical needs. By starting his own practice rather than joining a big firm, he could have the scheduling flexibility to accompany both to frequent appointments with doctors and therapists.

A Voice and a Guiding Hand for Families

Today Mark is a partner with Nadler Biernath LLC, where he focuses on cases such as special-needs trusts and estate planning for heirs who cannot manage assets on their own. And fortunately, there are no guns involved.

"Our matters really are not contentious at all," Mark says. "Even when we go to court on a guardianship, it's usually uncontested."

Mark and law partner Heather Nadler are currently assembling a workshop that will help parents with developmentally disabled children create guardianship petitions without even having to hire an attorney.

"A local organization called FOCUS, Families of Children Under Stress, is hosting it, and the goal is for parents to be able to leave with a petition that's ready to file," he says. "Right now, some of the judges tell me that in about two-thirds of these adult guardianships, the parents are doing it themselves. We're hoping that this will create less work for the courts because they'll have to deal with fewer incomplete petitions, and the parents will have more confidence in what they're doing."

In recent years, Mark's work has taken on an even more personal significance, as he has been diagnosed with a condition that causes neurological problems.

"The disability world has been our life for a long time," he says. "And many of the families we work with have similar experiences to ours. Once you meet one person with a disability, you've met exactly one person with a disability—no two people are the same. But there are similar experiences, so there's a sense of a kindred spirit when I'm meeting with clients and they talk about the issues they're having. I'm like, ‘I get it. We've had issues similar to what you're going through.'"

Mark and his wife recently structured their estate to include a planned gift to the College of Law. "We are very much in favor of higher education and quality education, and we both recognize that we would not have been able to have accomplished what we've accomplished had it not been for the schools we attended. So that was a big part of why we supported these institutions through planned giving."

Planned giving often comes up in conversations with estate clients, adds Mark, who served on an advancement committee during his seminary's re-accreditation.

"To this day, when someone asks me to leave money in their will to a church or school or some religious organization, I remind myself that there were several times while I was in seminary that they were on budget only because of an estate gift," he says.

"I tell my clients, ‘You might literally be the answer to someone else's prayers.'"

Be the Answer to a Prayer

You can follow in Mark's footsteps and provide life-changing educational opportunities to future students by including Georgia State in your estate plan. Contact Wendell Clark at 404-413-3425 or giftplanning@gsu.edu to explore your options.

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