Pro Bono 2.0: The New Age of Pro Bono
When Jasper Kierce, Jr., 75, needed a will last year, he turned to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), which had helped him with some disability-related issues in 1980 after he was burned in a house fire.
All these years later, Kierce now had a nagging feeling that something was seriously wrong with him, and he wanted his will drawn up to make sure his three children wouldn’t be burdened financially.
Meanwhile, in Ft. Lauderdale, Harvard Law graduate Tammie Purow was busy setting up her own law practice. After working at large law firms in New York and Florida, she had opted to go solo and work from home, using a virtual law office model.
“I wanted to start with some pro bono work to kind of test out my system at home,” Purow said. “I was looking specifically for estate planning opportunities.”
She soon discovered FloridaProBonoMatters.org, a new website developed by The Florida Bar Foundation to enable attorneys to find available pro bono cases posted by legal aid and pro bono programs statewide.
While users can search by location, legal aid program, or keywords, Purow wasn’t only interested in helping clients in Broward County. So, when she found a case posted by JALA, she didn’t hesitate to submit an interest form.
The form Purow submitted through the website connected her directly to JALA, and in turn, JALA connected her to Kierce.
Although JALA Pro Bono Director Kathy Para had never enlisted a pro bono attorney more than 300 miles away to work on a client’s will, she and Purow agreed to give it a try.
“As it turned out, it worked out really well,” Purow said, so well in fact that she took another case, and another, and another; all of them cases JALA had posted on FloridaProBonoMatters.org. For each case, JALA provided Purow an intake form and some background on the client.
“I touched base with the client by phone, had a conversation, did a first draft of the will and emailed it to Kathy, and she had the client come in to review it. If there were any changes, I would make the changes.”
Soon after turning to legal aid for help, Kierce was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I thank God for working with them and for them working with me and getting things straight. I’m very relieved of the stress and the strain because of that,” he said.
Purow found the work particularly satisfying because she noticed from the intake forms that Kierce and others had requested help months prior.
“It was nice knowing that I was able to see it through and that these people had their wills, because it just didn’t seem like it was going to happen,” she said.
Purow said FloridaProBonoMatters.org makes taking on pro bono cases much more convenient than it used to be.
“Everything is online. You can kind of take on as much as you can. You can manage it yourself. It’s great. This definitely is the way of the future, especially for transactional work. There’s no reason why you can’t do a lot of it virtually,” Purow said. “Overall, it’s not complicated work. It just doesn’t take that much time.”
Para said Purow was the first attorney to assist JALA clients remotely through FloridaProBonoMatters.org.
“It takes a little coordination, but what we know is that technology can be used to minimize the travel required of elderly, disabled, or rural clients,” Para said.
The ability to serve clients at a distance is vital to leveling the playing field for Floridians, given the state’s vast economic disparities and uneven distribution of lawyers. Miami-Dade County, for example, has less than 13 percent of the state’s population but more than 21 percent of its practicing attorneys.
The lawyer-to-resident ratio varies widely among Florida’s 67 counties, with Miami-Dade having a lawyer for every 170 people,1 v ersus one for every 323 in Collier County2 o r one for every 709 people in Polk County.3 M any of the counties with the fewest lawyers are also the ones with the highest poverty rates. DeSoto County, east of Sarasota, has just 24 lawyers for a population of 35,800, or one lawyer for every 1,492 residents,4 a nd is the only county in the state with a poverty rate of more than 30 percent.5
& #x201c;As the third most populous state in the country, Florida’s citizenry is both vast and diverse, with residents hailing from communities that vary widely by geography, background, and socioeconomic status. This mosaic is what makes the fabric of our state so strong, but it also creates great challenges in ensuring everyone has access to the legal services they need,” said Michael Higer, president of The Florida Bar.
“Fortunately, advancements in technology are helping connect Floridians from all walks of life with capable and talented lawyers who can help answer questions and provide assistance, regardless of geographic proximity. It is a game changer, and one I am most excited about.”
FloridaProBonoMatters.org is just one of several initiatives launched last year that have made it easier for Floridians anywhere to get free civil legal help from pro bono attorneys. Initially piloted in Miami-Dade County in February 2017, the site was displaying cases posted by pro bono programs statewide by last fall. the beginning of 2018, it had generated more than 230 interest forms from attorneys. The number of active cases in the system tripled in the second half of 2017, with 25 programs posting matters in 32 civil legal practice areas. Over the same period, the number of counties with active cases doubled.
The success of the site in its first year is a prime example of how technology will lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of pro bono legal services in the years to come.
But solutions will not come from technology alone. Promise also lies in the development of new collaborative models for pro bono legal services and the expansion of the pool of attorneys and other professionals engaged in volunteer efforts to resolve civil legal problems for individuals, as well as communities.
“Overall funding for civil legal aid in Florida is at a 10-year low, and yet, particularly in the wake of last year’s hurricanes, the legal needs of Floridians are as great — if not greater — than at any time in recent memory,” said Ericka Garcia, co-founder of Collaborative Justice Partners and former director of pro bono partnerships for The Florida Bar Foundation. “Now is the time to get creative, to pull together, and to form alliances both within the legal community and beyond.”
Tech Tools Go Public
While FloridaProBonoMatters.org is designed for lawyers looking for pro bono clients, The Florida Bar and its Young Lawyers Division, the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, and Florida’s courts have established websites, hotlines, and apps targeting the public. In the last year alone, Floridians gained several new online tools for accessing volunteer lawyers, legal resources, and information.
“We need to be able to provide pro bono assistance using every available platform, so that we can reach everyone at any time,” said Florida Bar President-elect Michelle Suskauer, who is also president of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. “The technology really connects both sides of the equation — the lawyers and the clients.”
Together with the ABA, The Florida Bar introduced Florida Free Legal Answers in 2017. The online virtual law clinic enables hurricane survivors and others with civil legal issues to post questions to the site, through which registered volunteer lawyers can provide answers. Users have to qualify for assistance and sign up for an account before they can post a question. Attorneys sign up by category so that they only field questions in their chosen area of expertise. Their answers are anonymous, but the person who posted the question receives an email alert when an answer has been posted and can provide supplemental information and ask follow-up questions.
“I confess that I am not the most technologically sophisticated person on the planet. And yet, not a day goes by that I don’t get an alert on Florida Free Legal Answers telling me that there’s a question that’s posted if I want to answer it. And so all I’ve got to do is, when I have down time — which we all do at some point in the day — I sit there, I click on the link, I go to the question, and I do my best to answer it,” Higer said.
“To me it’s one of the most gratifying exchanges that you’ll have when you help that person with that question. And if it’s one of those questions that you can’t answer, it goes back into the queue for somebody else to answer.”
Through a collaboration among the ABA, The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division, and FEMA, disaster survivors in 2017 also had access to the Florida Disaster Legal Services Hotline, a call center operated by Florida Bar employees who complete intake forms with the callers’ contact information and a description of their legal issue and then refer the callers to volunteer attorneys who follow up by telephone. Users could also submit their request to the hotline through an online form. In the first three months after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida on September 10, the hotline, which opened three days later, received more than 1,600 calls, which were referred to more than 450 attorneys.
Through the hotline, West Palm Beach attorney Santo DiGangi of Critton, Luttier & Coleman fielded four calls in the two months after Hurricane Irma. One of the people he helped was a woman in Bartow whose landlord was trying to evict her. Besides helping her understand the Florida statutes governing landlord-tenant issues, DiGangi worked to connect the woman to legal aid and pro bono services where she lived in Polk County.
“So even though I can’t travel to Bartow, we’re able to help with our network of lawyers and contact someone who can assist the person calling,” said DiGangi, president-elect designate of the Young Lawyers Division. “It’s a life-changer for them, and it’s a small sacrifice for us.”
In a similar hotline call, Key West attorney Al Kelley helped a disabled woman in Ft. Lauderdale whose landlord also was trying to evict her.
“He was using a lot of illegal methods to get rid of his tenant,” said Kelley, including having her car towed off the property with her walker inside.
Because of hurricane-related court closures and delays, Kelley’s client’s motion to stay her eviction and dismiss the case for improper filings did not get entered in time by the court.
“The judge called an emergency hearing, which the landlord didn’t appear for, but the judge read the paperwork we drafted and thanked the woman for bringing to his attention what the landlords have been doing and told her that he was going to dismiss the eviction case,” Kelley said.
Helping someone by phone is a great option, but being able to see the client is even better.
Although not yet statewide, iLawyer, a program launched a little over a year ago, is taking things a step further by utilizing Skype video chat to put the clients and the attorneys face-to-face.
Bay Area Legal Services (BALS) established the project in 2016 at the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, Inc., a community center where, during certain hours once a month, East Tampa residents can have walk-in or pre-scheduled appointments for a video chat with a volunteer attorney. A panel of six lawyers served 20 clients in the first year as the system was being developed.
Rosimar Lehr, an attorney for a global recruitment company based in Tampa, stays in her office after work once a month to help iLawyer clients via Skype with issues in areas such as workers’ compensation, disability, family law, contracts, and employment law.
“It’s the ease of use that really attracted me to the program,” Lehr said. “I keep my Skype on, but at the same time I can go on my second screen and filter through emails or do anything else while I’m waiting for a client to walk in or an appointment to show.”
All of the clients Lehr talks with have already been screened for eligibility and for their legal problem, so she is often able to preview their issues, check for conflicts, and brush up on the relevant area of the law prior to the meeting. Sometimes, all the client needs is guidance.
“Each client is different, so it is important to listen, collect, and review their information and provide some insight. In many cases, there are alternatives to going straight to court. If there is a public agency that may be able to help, I provide the client the contact information and explain why it would be beneficial to connect with that agency,” Lehr said.
“I think it’s an opportunity both for the attorney and the clients to collaborate and educate each other on different legal issues. It keeps you abreast of things that are going on outside of your specialty that you may not get involved in during a regular day. For me it’s kind of refreshing to keep my finger on the pulse of the different areas of law.”
Sometimes Lehr is able to answer a client’s question, interpret some legal language for them in a contract, or get them steered in the right direction, and that is all they need. At other times, she identifies related issues and provides notes to BALS so they can follow up.
Linda Anderson, iLawyer project manager, said BALS is hoping to expand the project to a local battered women’s shelter and looking into putting it in place in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
“I’m really passionate about the project and would love for it to become a statewide project,” said Anderson, who believes it could work equally as well with legal aid staff attorneys wanting to serve communities that have no legal aid presence, including rural areas.
In addition to these new options for finding volunteer lawyers, new tech tools offer help for self-represented litigants.
In December 2017, the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, led by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, released the Florida Courts Help app, which offers information for people seeking a divorce, adoption, orders of protection, name change, and other family law issues. The app was developed by staff in the Office of the State Courts Administrator at the commission’s direction.
The app provides access to 186 Supreme Court-approved family law forms that can be filled out on the device, as well as links and contact information for help centers around Florida. It also offers plain-language instructions, descriptions of first steps and next actions, and pointers and contacts for additional civil legal help, including free and low-cost legal services, lawyer referrals, and eligibility criteria.
Labarga said one of the legacies of his administration is the comprehensive statewide communications plan the courts are putting into place that embraces technology like the new Florida Courts Help app.
“As people turn more and more to smartphones and tablets, our app gives self-represented litigants yet another avenue to get the help they need,” Labarga said. “In the years ahead, you will see our courts turn more and more to emerging communications technology to enforce our constitutional guarantee that the courts of Florida will be open to the people without sale, denial, or delay.”
Problem-Solving Through Collaboration
W hile technology is proving increasingly vital to reaching larger numbers of Floridians in need of legal help, collaboration among groups and organizations with a shared purpose will enable volunteer lawyers to zero in on and tackle specific societal problems.
In 2016, Labarga presented the Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association with the Voluntary Bar Association Pro Bono Service Award at the Florida Supreme Court, in part for its work on the issue of homelessness.
The association is particularly effective in its volunteer projects because it collaborates with civil legal aid organizations, the University of Florida Levin College of Law, the public defender’s office, the public library, and veterans’ and other community organizations to address targeted problems and populations.
“We’re focusing on the unmet legal needs that are keeping homeless people from achieving financial and housing stability,” said Kirsten Anderson, a member of the bar association board and litigation director with Gainesville-based nonprofit Southern Legal Counsel.
The bar association’s project has involved three part-time legal aid staff (one from Southern Legal Counsel and two from Three Rivers Legal Services ), 90 law students, and 27 pro bono attorneys, who have together contributed more than 770 pro bono hours and served more than 260 clients at more than 20 Ask-A-Lawyer events since 2015.
This local partnership is now becoming part of a new national project spearheaded by ABA President Hilarie Bass to engage volunteer attorneys in addressing the legal needs of homeless youth.
The ABA’s Homeless Youth Legal Network (HYLN) is being piloted in Florida, where Bass appointed Garcia to lead statewide.
Hoping to connect, Anderson reached out to Garcia, who was matching lawyers and law firms with Florida’s homeless youth shelters and drop-in centers.
“I wanted to propose, instead of a law firm being matched with a shelter, that we could get the bar association to match,” Anderson said. The Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association’s board approved her proposal on January 3, and Anderson immediately began following up with the local Interface Youth Shelter.
She is collaborating with Marcie Green, pro bono coordinator at Three Rivers Legal Services, to plan the project and provide training and support for pro bono lawyers who volunteer through the bar association. Anderson and Green are considering partnering with pro bono lawyers in the Third Judicial Circuit to adopt another shelter run by Interface located in Lake City, which would be the first rural community involved.
Bass, who is co-president of Greenberg Traurig, attended a meeting September 28 at the Orlando Covenant House homeless youth shelter along with lawyers and staff from The Florida Bar Foundation and her firm’s Orlando office to learn about the legal needs of the shelter’s clients and to explore how Greenberg Traurig’s lawyers could help.
Covenant House staff told her of legal issues their clients had encountered, which included identity theft, credit issues, expungement, domestic violence, name change, immigration, custody, and child support. They told of one client from Thailand who had been adopted by three different American families and ended up homeless and with no proof of identity.
“It’s not an everyday need, but when there is a real need, boy it would be nice to be able to pick up the phone and call someone,” Covenant House Executive Director Jim Gress said.
Bass believes the HYLN project can provide a solution, statewide and nationally, based on a network of partnerships.
“This is a great example of how, by working together, we can dramatically change the lives of homeless youth across Florida and maximize our impact,” Bass said. “bringing together volunteer resources from the American Bar Association, The Florida Bar Foundation, legal aid organizations, community groups and local firms like Greenberg Traurig and others, the whole is significantly greater than the sum of the parts. I thank Ericka Garcia, whose dedication to this project is a key reason we have 10 shelters in Florida with partnerships set up and ready to move forward.”
The 10,000-plus member Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of The Florida Bar is partnering with legal aid organizations across Florida to address another wide-ranging problem: In the wake of disasters like Hurricane Irma, after which 2.6 million Floridians sought assistance from FEMA,6 h omeowners who lack clear title are ineligible for federal aid.
The section has adopted No Place Like Home, a project begun at BALS in 2015, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. BALS staff had studied Katrina’s aftermath in Louisiana and Mississippi, where the recovery had come to a standstill in many low-income areas because residents had inherited property but had been unable to afford going through probate prior to the storm.
BALS sought to prevent that problem by developing a project to recruit and train pro bono attorneys to help low-income residents clear title before natural disasters strike.
The project, now supported by a $307,000 grant from the federally funded Legal Services Corporation, also involves working with local governments. The City of Sarasota as of December had identified 60 properties that would benefit from No Place Like Home.
“We’re creating more relationships,” BALS Deputy Director Joan Boles said. “For instance, the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser is referring people to us.”
Beyond the Usual Suspects
Every bar association, every large law firm, and every legal aid and pro bono program has a reliable group of volunteer attorneys who are almost always willing to help with projects like the Homeless Youth Legal Network or No Place Like Home.
But as long as pro bono projects appeal only to that subset of the attorney population, their reach will be limited.
That’s why pro bono innovators are working to develop ways to expand the circle to include corporate counsel, government lawyers, and even nonlawyer professionals who can add to the numbers of people doing volunteer work, enhance the work of legal aid and pro bono programs, and solve more of the problems facing their clients.
At Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF), for example, the telephone helpline is staffed almost exclusively by pro bono lawyers, nearly two dozen of whom are government attorneys, some of whom use their five hours of allowed administrative leave per month to volunteer.
“These are attorneys who don’t necessarily have a lot of flexibility with their schedules, but within a small, defined period of time, they can really supplement the services of our staff attorneys in a meaningful way,” LSNF Executive Director Leslie Powell-Boudreaux said.
Jason Lazarus, a litigation partner in the West Palm Beach office of Holland & Knight, serves on the board of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County (LASPBC) and has been doing pro bono work since he joined the firm 16 years ago. He’s done more than 1,000 hours of pro bono work, been inducted into LASPBC’s Pro Bono Hall of Fame, and received awards for pro bono service.
“But I was looking for other things to do with pro bono,” Lazarus said.
So, Lazarus decided to launch an effort to engage in-house counsel from local companies, a group that tends to be less involved in pro bono projects than their law firm counterparts.
“And so, in March, I sent a bunch of letters to really every company that had any kind of in-house legal department in Palm Beach County. From those letters I have been following up with phone calls, and I’ve had meetings, and I’ve had lunches. We’ve gotten several companies involved,” Lazarus said.
He’s working with LASPBC Executive Director Bob Bertisch and Kimberly Rommel-Enright, supervising attorney of the LASPBC Pro Bono Project, to identify opportunities that are not too time-intensive and would require minimal training, since corporate counsel tend to have fixed schedules. Among the projects available are disaster relief, expulsion hearings, domestic violence restraining order hearings, immigration clinics, serving as guardian advocates, and the Non-Profit Legal Assistance Project.
Lazarus believes the Pro Bono Corporate Challenge will appeal to corporate counsel who did pro bono work before they went in-house.
“I’ve had attorneys who have been with Holland & Knight, and they have left to go in-house, and they still want to do pro bono work. They still want to help people, and I think even more so, because with a company, you’ve got one client now, whereas when you are working in a law firm, you’re helping multiple clients,” Lazarus said. “There are also opportunities for former litigators where they can get back in court and still keep those skills sharp, doing pro bono work. It’s really a win-win. You’re helping the legal aid society. You’re adding an additional segment of attorneys who we haven’t really historically been able to capture.”
Traci Koster of Nelson Law Group in Tampa co-founded the Tampa Bay Pro Bono Partners based on a similar idea that came out of the 13th Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee’s Law Firm Subcommittee. Her co-founder was Sarah Lahlou-Amine at Banker Lopez, and her current co-chair is Ashley Trehan at Buchanan Ingersoll.
“We wanted to offer a platform that blended pro bono service with networking and relationship-building opportunities, including those among law-firm attorneys, in-house counsel, and law students,” Koster said, adding that part of the goal was to build “meaningful and lasting relationships” through community service.
Through the Tampa Bay Pro Bono Partners, law firms and in-house counsel work together on teams of two to four attorneys, with each team taking on a specific project.
For example, several teams have volunteered with Crossroads for Florida Kids, a nonprofit that provides lawyers to foster children, while one team has volunteered three years in a row at the BALS Judge Don Castor Community Law Center, where they provide legal assistance to nonprofits that serve low-income residents.
“This is an ideal pro bono opportunity for transactional attorneys, in-house counsel, and attorneys representing management,” Koster said.
She said the pressures inherent in the practice of law can make setting aside time for pro bono service a challenge, although not an insurmountable one.
“We felt it was important to acknowledge that, work with the firms and companies that have the power to incentivize pro bono service, address some of the roadblocks lawyers face in serving, and facilitate a pro bono experience that benefits organizations, professionals, and the community that has given us all so much,” Koster said.
Just as lawyers can advise nonprofits on transactional matters, nonlawyers can help legal aid organizations streamline their operations and enhance their services.
In 2016, The Florida Bar Foundation facilitated a project through which an advisor from Toyota North America’s nonprofit affiliate, the Toyota Production System Support Center, helped Florida Rural Legal Services (FRLS) redesign its telephone intake process and learn how to apply Toyota’s “kaizen” business process improvement techniques to increase efficiencies throughout the organization.
The result: Qualified client intakes increased by about 9 percent over the year ended October 31, 2017, while the total number of cases closed has increased by 18 percent.
More importantly, FRLS has seen a 49 percent increase in the number of cases in which the help provided was more than just counsel and advice or limited service. The changes have FRLS lawyers practicing law at a higher level.
“We started an advice line to get some of those counsel and advice cases away from the staff attorneys, so they could do more life-changing work,” said Amy Burns, FRLS deputy director. “I think that as a program we’re on the road to implementing the Toyota problem-solving culture throughout the organization.”
Whether it’s a matter of engaging Toyota engineers in helping legal aid organizations operate more efficiently, connecting clients with volunteer attorneys via the Internet, or bringing disparate groups of lawyers together to address an issue like homelessness, pro bono legal services have come a long way from the days when lawyers would set up folding tables in shopping malls and wait for people to show up.
Higer remembers doing just that as a young lawyer volunteering at the Dadeland Mall in Miami, in much the same way Lucy, of “Peanuts” fame, would sit in her booth offering psychiatric help for 5 cents with a sign announcing, “The Doctor Is In.”
It wasn’t much of a business model.
The benefit of all the experimentation and new approaches is that pro bono programs are now offering something for everyone, Higer said. Lawyers can even volunteer their time without leaving their home or office, and clients have all kinds of options they never had before.
“You’ve got to recognize that, whether you’re talking about a young lawyer or more senior lawyer, there’s no one shoe that’s going to fit all, and there’s not going to be one way that’s going to resonate with every lawyer or every member of the public,” Higer said. “We have to be willing to try different vehicles.”
1 The Florida Bar, Membership Data (Jan. 1, 2018); United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts Miami-Dade County, Florida, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/miamidadecountyflorida/POP060210 .
2 The Florida Bar, Membership Data (Jan. 1, 2018); United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts Collier County, Florida, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/colliercountyflorida,US/PST045217 .
3 The Florida Bar, Membership Data (Jan. 1, 2018); United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts Polk County, Florida, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/polkcountyflorida,US/PST045217 .
4 The Florida Bar, Membership Data (Jan. 1, 2018); United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts DeSoto County, Florida, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/desotocountyflorida,US/PST045217.
5 Hector H. Sandoval, Poverty and Income in Florida, Bureau of Economic and Business Research, https://www.bebr.ufl.edu/economics/website-article/poverty-and-income-florida.
6 Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA DR-4337-FL Recovery Program Summary (Dec. 29, 2017), https://www.fema.gov/disaster/4337.
NANCY KINNALLY is CEO of Relatable Communications Group, a full-service marketing and public relations agency focused on legal, medical, start-up companies, institutions, and nonprofits. She previously directed communications for The Florida Bar Foundation and was the founding communications director of the Florida State University College of Medicine. She can be reached at [email protected].