Benefits abound when providing pro bono through legal aid organizations
'You are not going to take a pro bono case and give 50%, because that’s not what the rules require. You have to give 100%'
Free malpractice insurance, translation services, help maintaining client communication, expert mentors for unfamiliar practice areas — those are just a few of the resources available to Florida Bar members who perform pro bono service through a legal aid organization.
“What we’re doing is eliminating excuses to go out there and give back, and really feel proud of the privilege you have to practice law,” said Ft. Lauderdale attorney Juan Carlos Arias, who represents attorneys in Bar disciplinary matters.
Arias was a panelist for The Florida Bar Winter Meeting presentation “Pro Bono Service: Trending Needs and Ethical Considerations,” a free CLE sponsored by the Pro Bono Legal Services Committee and InReach CE.
Other panelists included Bethanie Barber, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association; Jeff Harvey, CEO of Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida; and Patrice Paldino, director of legal services for Operation Sacred Trust, a veteran service organization in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The program was moderated by Pro Bono Legal Services Committee member Sarah Lahlou-Amine.
Committee Co-Chair Kathleen McLeroy opened the session by reminding the audience that Florida lawyers donated 1.5 million legal service hours and $6.8 million to legal aid organizations last year.
“These are invaluable resources to improve the lives of vulnerable Floridians faced with real-life problems. By investing their time and dollars, Florida attorneys help their clients with basic life problems; they assist with things like providing stable housing options, creating certainty with regard to child custody and visitation, and promoting personal safety through obtaining domestic violence injunctions.”
The purpose of the presentation is to provide “valuable insight and motivation to fulfill that portion of The Florida Bar oath in which we all have agreed to provide legal services to the defenseless and oppressed,” McLeroy said.
One by one, panel members extolled the benefits of pro bono service and volunteering through legal aid organizations.
While studies show that most Florida lawyers donate their pro bono hours outside of an organized legal aid program, there are practical benefits to volunteering with a legal aid organization, Harvey said.
Free malpractice insurance is one of them, he said.
“If you’re covered by your firm’s malpractice insurance, ours pays first,” Harvey said.
At Harvey’s organization, lawyers can learn about an unfamiliar practice area through Peer Academy, an eight-week class on various specialties — such as probate and bankruptcy — that his organization offers a few times a year. In exchange, the volunteer agrees to take on two cases and serve as a mentor to the next class, Harvey said.
“You’re getting mentorship from the previous class; you’re gaining experience from teaching the class,” he said.
Volunteers with the Orange County Bar program are joining a pro bono culture, Barber said. When they come aboard, they’re asked to describe their interests and the populations they want to serve.
“Once we know the person, we share with them the opportunities,” she said. “We work with that relationship to make sure we’re connecting them with the community they need to get that fulfillment.”
Staff attorneys at her organization guide newcomers and even serve as co-counsel on a case, she said. An expert panel of conflict attorneys is also available, Barber added.
Beginning lawyers can gain experience in a variety of practice areas before launching their own practice, Barber said.
Pro bono clients rarely approach a legal aid organization with a single problem, the panelists noted. The power of legal aid organizations is that they partner with a wide variety of community organizations to meet their clients’ needs and volunteer attorneys benefit from those connections as well.
“The volunteer working with a legal aid organization gets plugged in to all of this,” Lahlou-Amine said.
“One of the things I always tell my attorneys is that all we can give them is a piece of paper. I can fix that problem, but I can’t find that client a place to live for the next 18 months,” Harvey said. “Those partnerships [with other service providers] are essential.”
One of the biggest challenges for legal aid groups, Harvey said, is convincing clients to seek legal help sooner.
“If you call me when you lose your job, I may be able to save your home. If you call me on the day before eviction, I may only be able to buy you a little time,” he said.
Florida Bar Board of Governors member Hilary Creary, a Pro Bono Legal Services Committee member, said the new Florida Bar “Life’s Legal Moments” campaign could help elevate some of the problem as the campaign is designed to help Florida consumers recognize the benefit of investing in affordable legal services before a problem grows much more expensive.
Arias, the Ft. Lauderdale attorney, reminded the audience that Florida Bar ethics rules, including those that govern confidentiality, client communication, and Rule 4-1.3 (Diligence), still apply in pro bono matters.
“You are not going to take a pro bono case and give 50%, because that’s not what the rules require,” he said. “You have to give 100%.”