‘Go back to your communities and embrace pro bono. Do it with a passion’
By Jan Pudlow
Frustrated by children waiting too long for adoption into forever families, Tampa lawyer Jeanne Trudeau Tate didn’t just wring her hands in despair. She stepped up and suggested an innovative solution to then Gov. Jeb Bush and the head of the Department of Children and Families.
Tate offered to donate her legal services and the members of her firm to the state and its Tampa-based community provider, Hillsborough Kids, Inc., to speed up adoptions, using the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children process and widening the pool of prospective adoptive families.
Tate enjoys a reputation as one of the top adoption lawyers in the state. But “her accomplishments in her field of specialty pale in comparison to what she has done to assist the poor,” said Ben Hill, her mentor, former law partner, and former Florida Bar president.
Fifty-seven-year-old Tate has offered to handle every adoption-related case presented to Bay Area Legal Services, donating hundreds and hundreds of hours of pro bono service. She created a nonprofit called Heart of Adoptions Alliance, Inc., that raises money to give private grants and interest-free loans to prospective adoptive parents.
Introducing Tate as the winner of this year’s Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, Chief Justice Ricky Polston — who with his wife Deborah adopted six siblings in less than six years — said: “As an adoptive parent, it is especially my pleasure to ask this year’s award recipient to approach the bench and receive your award.”
Tate saluted all of the pro bono winners gathered at the Florida Supreme Court’s special ceremony on January 31.
“I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I was the oldest of four children and no one in my family ever went to college. It was basically hard work, nose to the grindstone. We got things done,” Tate said.
“But South Florida was a place where there were very, very stark contrasts between the haves and the have-nots. There were differences, even though we all played by the same rules, about the opportunities that were given to people.
“People of color, people whose names were different, people who looked different, people who spoke in a different way were not given the same opportunities. And so those images, as I matured, kind of seared in the memory of my brain that, I think, contributed to the person I am today.
“It has caused me to live by a simple and succinct adage of Winston Churchill: ‘We make a living by what we get. But we make a life by what we give.’ And giving has always been part of my life, particularly in the area of abused, neglected, and abandoned children,” Tate said.
She described the namesake of Florida’s highest pro bono award as “a giant in our legal profession, just a passionate visionary. Tobias Simon was someone whose work on behalf of the downtrodden exemplifies, I think, the very, very best that we can be as lawyers. But if he were here today, he would tell you that these awards are not about us. They are about shining the light of day on the disenfranchised, about the poor, and about the people who can’t do the things in life that we can do, who can’t even find a place to live that’s free of domestic violence, that’s free of abuse, that’s free of neglect.
“So, in his honor, I issue a clarion call to all of you, as some of my colleagues have done here today: Go back to your communities and embrace pro bono. Do it with a passion. Do it with perseverance. And I promise you won’t be let down. It will be one of the most meaningful things that you do. For my sake, I know our children count on you to do that.”
It was a day of shining the light on Florida lawyers dedicated to doing more than their fair share of pro bono work.
“Today is a very special day, not only for everyone in this courtroom, but also for many thousands of Floridians who have received legal assistance through the volunteer efforts and direct pro bono service of lawyers,” said Florida Bar President Gwynne Young.
“I am very proud to say that during the 2011-12 fiscal year of The Florida Bar, Florida lawyers contributed more than $4.8 million to legal aid and 1.6 million hours of pro bono service. Florida lawyers are truly committed to making a difference in their communities.”
She announced The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Awards given in each of the 20 judicial circuits, ranging from lawyers who settle landlord-tenant disputes, stop harassing phone calls from creditors, help children aging out of foster care, assist Holocaust survivors with claims for reparations from the German government, and work with nonprofits to revitalize neighborhoods and provide affordable housing.
“I have to take a point of personal privilege here today, because I, too, am from Hillsborough County,” Young said.
“As president of The Florida Bar, it makes me feel particularly proud to see so many people from the 13th Circuit who are here for the good work that I know they do and have done over the years. Even though Scott Hawkins [former Bar president from West Palm Beach] chaired the committee, and I didn’t chose any of these people, it makes me very, very proud to see each of you honored.”
Besides the Tobias Simon winner Tate from Tampa, the Judicial Service Award went to 13th Circuit Judge Claudia Rickert Isom, the Law Firm Commendation recipient was Clark & Washington, P.C., in Tampa, and the Tampa Bay Hispanic Bar Association was honored with the Voluntary Bar Association Pro Bono Service Award.
“I think above all, this is a day that makes you proud to be a lawyer,” Young said.
Pro bono not only changes your client’s life, but it can change yours, too, was the message from 29-year-old Rebecca Lauren Sosa, a litigation associate at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed in Miami, who was honored with the Young Lawyers Pro Bono Service Award.
After law school, Sosa went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to learn basic Spanish. There, she met her husband, Luciano, and he became her first Spanish-speaking client, as they navigated the immigration path to bring him to the United States.
That sparked Sosa’s pro bono passion to assist low-income women, children, and immigrants, and she contributed more than 1,000 pro bono hours in 2010.
Sosa highlighted one of her special pro bono clients, a woman from Guatemala who had an abusive spouse in the United States, and two years later was granted legal permanent residence through the Violence Against Women Act.
“It was really a transformational experience for her, and, frankly, for me. She was a caterpillar who just blossomed into a butterfly,” Sosa said.
“I am so proud of her and all the efforts of my firm and the people I work with that helped her get there. She is a different person today. And that’s because of the kind of work that we are supporting here today.”
The woman was able to visit her son, whom she had sent back to Guatemala to live with her parents, to escape the abuse.
Sosa read a thank-you card from her client, first in Spanish and then translated: “To a very special person who has contributed to changing my life forever.”
“Being here today, I can tell her she really changed mine, forever, too,” Sosa said.
At the close of the hour-long ceremony, Chief Justice Polston said: “Those honored here today, those of you everywhere in Florida who honor the spirit of public service, let me urge you: There is no greater cause than serving justice, even when it means you must place yourselves between the just causes of the poor and the oppressed and the unjust opinions of the powerful.
“In so doing, not only do you help those in need, but as Tobias Simon recognized, you help preserve many of the basic rights of our republic. This is the very essence of the rule of law, which has made this nation great.”