by Whitney Untiedt
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” — Henry Ford
As Florida’s legal leaders look to identify strategies to close the access-to-justice gap, an important part of the answer lies in the ability of Florida’s law-firm community to take a central role in developing and sustaining pro bono partnerships that support the vital work of legal services providers.
Answering the Call After a Major Disaster
When disaster strikes, the need for legal assistance spikes. As floodwaters recede and first responders focus on stabilizing communities, disaster survivors turn their attention to rebuilding. Legal services are an integral part of this process — and while legal aid programs lead the charge in meeting the needs of low-income disaster survivors, pro bono providers play an important collaborative role.
As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida in September 2017, the disaster relief network began activating. Although it had been 12 years since a Category 3 or higher hurricane came ashore in Florida, Irma threatened the coastlines only two weeks after Hurricane Harvey roared onshore in Texas. As a result, pro bono leaders were at the ready to jump into action.
Beginning in the days leading up to Irma’s landfall and continuing still today, law firms have worked closely with legal services programs, The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Foundation, the ABA Young Lawyers Division, and others to identify opportunities for impactful pro bono contributions and to assist in recruiting and training volunteers.
Law firms also quickly collaborated to organize fail-safe operations with two centralized points-of-contact for pro bono outreach. One firm’s pro bono counsel served as the in-state “boots on the ground” network contact, and another firm leader stepped in from the safety of an unaffected city — ensuring that a pro bono response could be triggered even if local organizers were impacted by the storm.
As our nation grapples with a number of intense natural disasters — from floods to fires and blizzards to heat waves — Florida legal services and pro bono leaders are continuing to collaborate, working with networks across the country to develop and institutionalize best practices for disaster legal response systems.
Capitalizing on Corporate Relationships
As legal services programs continue growing their networks of pro bono volunteers, private practitioners and firms can play a key role in bringing new lawyers to the pro bono fold through their relationships with corporate counsel. Many Florida companies have long-standing commitments to social responsibility, community philanthropy, and pro bono, and they often encourage outside counsel to share this dedication in demonstrable ways.
Across the state, law firms are developing pro bono partnerships with client organizations that both deepen the professional relationships and expand opportunities for legal services organizations to tap into new volunteer resources.
From partnering at advice clinics to co-authoring legal manuals to co-counseling client representation, law firms have developed an expertise in building pro bono projects that capitalize on the strengths and interests of in-house lawyers, and that offer individualized mentorship and guidance for first-time volunteers.
Building Communities of Service
As law firms have professionalized their pro bono practice, strong cohesive communities of pro bono providers have developed — and as these networks continue growing, opportunities for partnerships among bar associations, legal services organizations, and volunteer lawyers have become increasingly sophisticated and responsive to the needs of vulnerable populations.
In 1996, the Pro Bono Institute launched as a national resource for the provision of legal services to the poor. Ten years later, the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) was established as a mission-driven organization of law firm pro bono managers, focused on maximizing access to justice. To date, over 100 firms are represented in APBCo, over 115 firms have joined the PBI Law Firm Project, and more than 170 corporations have signed on to the PBI Corporate Challenge.
As advances in technology continue to present opportunities for volunteers to offer pro bono services in nontraditional ways, local legal aid organizations can capitalize on law firms’ leadership in the expanding regional and national networks. By linking into these extensive communities of service, nonprofits can expand beyond their local volunteer base and find new, innovative partnerships in service.
WHITNEY UNTIEDT is a partner and director of pro bono initiatives at Akerman LLP.