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Foundation grants aim to transform pro bono programs

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With support from a Florida Bar Foundation pro bono transformation grant, Southern Legal Counsel (SLC) is developing a formalized pro bono program that will involve volunteer lawyers, students, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals in all aspects of the public interest law firm’s litigation and advocacy.

SLC’s new program utilizes a hybrid model focused on recruiting co-counsel to work with SLC on high-impact, systems-changing litigation, as well as volunteers for traditional individual representation matters. The program therefore requires a diverse pro bono panel, including experienced litigation attorneys.

Samantha HowellSamantha Howell, SLC’s new pro bono director under the grant, is holding a series of focus groups across the state with prospective partners to discuss the pro bono landscape and identify firm needs and obstacles to taking on pro bono cases.

Attorneys working with SLC will be addressing some of the most pressing civil legal needs, including homelessness, access to health care and special education, and the rights of transgender individuals.

“My hope is that, through these focus group meetings, firms will not only realize the benefit to their attorneys of partnering with SLC, but also the great need in the community,” Howell said. “The attorneys at SLC bring over 50 years of litigation experience in poverty law and are deeply invested in this work. Their passion is contagious, and I know that our firm partners will feel that.”

Among the first firms to sign on is Akerman, whose director of pro bono initiatives, New York-based partner Gina DelChiaro, works with firm colleagues to match their skills to community needs. The firm’s wide-ranging pro bono activities include leading litigation that effects broad-based societal change, which is aligned with SLC’s mission.

Gina DelChiaro“Akerman is proud to partner with SLC on our shared commitment to pro bono and access to justice for those who need it most,” DelChiaro said. “We look forward to working with Samantha and the rest of the team at SLC to expand pro bono services in Florida.”

Howell is also working with stakeholders to expand SLC’s ability to serve clients through a variety of access-to-justice initiatives, including the Healthy Kids Medical Legal Partnership with the University of Florida Pediatrics Severe Asthma Clinic, the Transgender Identification Initiative, Ask-A-Lawyer, and other projects that are under development.

Volunteer attorneys will receive support from SLC, including access to substantive and procedural training materials.

“My goal is for each of our volunteers to be a repeat customer, so I will do what I can to ensure the experience is rewarding,” Howell said.

Attorneys or law firms interested in participating in SLC’s pro bono program can contact Howell at [email protected] or 352-271-8890.

The Foundation created the Pro Bono Transformation and Innovation Grants Program in 2018 to help legal aid organizations develop and enhance their pro bono programs. Innovation grants of up to $25,000 focus on projects that serve unmet client needs; transformation grantees may receive up to $100,000 per year for two years to build comprehensive and effective pro bono systems through new applications of existing best practices.

In 2019, the Foundation awarded three new innovation grants and three new transformation grants in addition to funding the second year of five programs’ grants.