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Giving the gift of time: Committing to increase pro bono service during the holiday season and year round

Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy, Class IX Fellows Columns

Leadership AcademyAs we reflect upon the holiday season, we are reminded of the importance of having safe and stable housing where families and friends can gather. This is particularly more daunting than ever for low-income Floridians who are facing increased housing instability resulting from impacts of the ongoing global pandemic as they face looming evictions or unsafe living conditions.

The expiration of state-wide pandemic eviction moratoriums in June 2020 has led to an increase in the number of eviction filings according to most news research sources. It is predicted that at least half of these filings will result in actual evictions.  According to Eviction Lab, a Princeton University eviction data research project, Florida has the fourth highest rental population in the nation — approximately 7 million people – while scoring lower in tenant support and preservation measures.[1]

Each class of The Florida Bar’s Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy is called upon to develop a class project as part of the academy’s curriculum, with the goal that the project will assist in helping to improve the legal profession for not only Florida attorneys but all of those who reside in the State of Florida. This year, Class IX has committed to highlighting the importance of pro bono service in the legal profession by encouraging all members of The Florida Bar to increase their participation in pro bono work. In doing so, Class IX’s project strives to not only emphasize the positive impact that pro bono service has on attorneys but the importance to the community at large. Given the current state of affairs in the rental housing market, the need for pro bono service in the areas of tenant rights and eviction defense is more important than ever. As such, Class IX would like to bring awareness to this need as part of its class project.

Class IX Spotlight—January 2022 Tenants’ Right Clinic

This month, Class IX Fellows will be participating in a virtual Tenants’ Rights Clinic hosted by Legal Services of Greater Miami. This clinic will focus on advising clients of their rights under Fla. Statutes, Chapter 83, which governs the landlord-tenant relationship. In particular, the participating Class IX Fellows will be counseling attendees regarding claims for security deposits, including preparing a demand letter or completing a small claims petition. Additionally, participating fellows will also be advising attendees regarding their options when faced with uninhabitable living conditions.

Prior to participating in the clinic, the attorneys providing pro bono services will receive training, in addition to being provided with the standard forms that can be used during the clinic. A staff attorney from Legal Services of Greater Miami will also be on hand to assist as needed.  After completing the clinic, participating attorneys will receive continuing legal education credits.

Patrick Brathwaite

Patrick Brathwaite

The scheduling of this clinic is the result of the collaboration of Jayme Cassidy, chief diversity officer and pro bono advocacy director for Legal Services of Greater Miami, and our very own Patrick Brathwaite, a Class IX fellow. Brathwaite is an associate at Akerman who focuses on business and commercial litigation, and is also the co-chair of the Hillsborough County Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Member Services Committee for 2021-2022. Brathwaite also sits on the board of directors for the National Hispanic Bar Association Young Lawyers Division for Florida. Last year, Brathwaite participated in a Legal Services of Greater Miami clinic organized as part of his involvement with the National Hispanic Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.  His participation in the clinic motivated him to seek out Cassidy to organize a clinic for the Class IX Fellows in furtherance of the class project’s objectives.

Making a Commitment to Participate in Pro Bono Eviction Defense Cases

Legal Services of Greater Miami, which serves Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, is in the process of applying for a Legal Services Corporation Pro Bono Innovation Fund Grant to fund a full-time staff attorney to oversee the Eviction Defense Project. Cassidy believes the need for such a grant is so important that eviction defense is one of the highest unmet legal needs in Miami-Dade County. This new full-time staff attorney dedicated to evictions would focus on recruiting, training and mentoring, as well as serving as co-counsel with pro bono attorneys on eviction defense cases where needed.

This grant application process requires Legal Services of Greater Miami to obtain letters of commitment from law firms and voluntary bar organizations wherein they agree to participate in the project. This commitment would require agreeing to provide pro bono attorneys that would participate in training and the handling of eviction defense cases. If your firm would like to submit a letter of commitment or find out more information regarding this program contact Cassidy at [email protected].

[1] Eviction Lab and Emily A. Benfer, COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, https://evictionlab.org/covid-policy-scorecard/.

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