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In praise of lawyers who keep their pro bono promise

Senior Editor Regular News

In a roomful of lawyers gathered to honor pro bono volunteers, one mother of a young boy came to show her deep appreciation.

Doug McAlarney and Kristina Benton Once, Kristina Benton had been separated from her son, who was exposed to a meth lab and living in filth at her estranged husband’s home.

Now, 25 hours of free legal help later that involved going to court, Benton has full custody of her 8-year-old son, described as happy at home and enrolled in a new school.

Benton flung her arms in a warm hug around Tallahassee lawyer Doug McAlarney, whose eyes glistened with tears.

“We had to go up against one of the biggest lawyers in town, and we were able to push back,” McAlarney said. “At this point in my legal career, there has been nothing more beautiful than to help reunite a mother and her child.”

Benton was in the audience October 24 at the Pro Bono Week reception honoring lawyer volunteers of the Tallahassee Bar Association’s Legal Aid Foundation and the Thunderdome Tallahassee Class I.

“I just wanted to be here because Doug helped me in so many ways, and so did Anne,” she said, referring to Anne Munson, executive director of the TBA Legal Aid Foundation, who had listened to her sad predicament and quickly found her a volunteer lawyer to take her case.

“I didn’t know where to go, what to do, who to turn to. And they helped me from beginning to end. I was thinking I was on a waiting list, and he said, ‘No, I’ve got your case.’ I about fell out of my chair.”

As Munson and McAlarney described, Benton walked into the TBA’s Legal Aid office, asking for help in a child visitation modification. Because of some false accusations, the child had been placed with her estranged husband, but he did not provide proper care. Living in a tent inside a filthy house, the child was exposed to a meth lab. His hair was coming out in patches, because he had an untreated ringworm infection on his head and had broken out in a rash. The boy complained he wasn’t given enough baths, and he had to go to school dirty.

Munson called McAlarney, part of Thunderdome Tallahassee, where the motto is “Young lawyers enter, community leaders emerge.” Experienced lawyers mentor less experienced lawyers willing to handle pro bono cases, and that has resulted in recruiting and developing more volunteers in pro bono family law.

McAlarney said he was honored to take Benton’s case.

Munson told the lawyers and community leaders gathered: “When you think about civil legal aid, the impact is a child who needs a safe and stable living environment. This was the first case I saw. It keeps me in mind of one of our volunteer lawyers, Karen Walker of Holland & Knight, who put it this way: ‘Civil legal aid seems so distant, but when you set a fair child support amount, a child has food on the table, a decent roof over her head, school clothes that fit. You name it. These basic needs are what are at stake in a family law case.’”

While Munson estimated there are more than 2,300 low-income families in Leon County alone, clients had been facing a three-to-four-month wait for lawyer volunteers.

“It was a major unmet need,” Munson said. “Every time we saw a client coming in, we knew it was a threat to home and family and livelihood. And that’s not just here. It is endemic to the state and to the nation. Family law is the hardest area to find help.”

Facing this growing need for family law volunteers, Tallahassee Legal Aid partnered with legal and community leaders to create Thunderdome Tallahassee.

“Our caseload for low-income families waiting for help is down to two,” Munson said, as the audience broke into applause.

Florida Bar Foundation Executive Director Bruce Blackwell, who received the ABA’s 2014 Pro Bono Publico Award, came to the podium and said: “I am thrilled that the Tallahassee Bar has done this, because Thunderdome is a project I believe can be replicated around the state of Florida and hopefully beyond the limits of Florida.”

Blackwell pointed out that “one out of every four children in the state of Florida lives in poverty. And a great number of those people are involved in particularly difficult family situations.. . . Where do we have the most affect one on one? We make the most change when we touch one family, one child.”

The Florida Bar Foundation is relying more on the private bar, Blackwell said, because of its financial crisis. Once, he said, the Foundation had $88.2 million in reserves, but because of plummeting interest rates, IOTA funds have dried up, and the Foundation has “spent up almost $100 million in the last five and a half years.”

Sandy D’Alemberte, a former ABA president who received the 2007 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, filed the D’Alemberte Petition in 1990 seeking mandatory pro bono service from Florida lawyers, and the Florida Supreme Court would make pro bono service reporting mandatory in 1994.

“We adopted a rule, unique in the United States at that time, in which the Supreme Court said, ‘We cannot have justice if only the wealthy people are able to get into court,’” D’Alemberte recounted.

“We have to have lawyers engaged, and since the funding for legal services has been cut so drastically, we would like to ask all lawyers to do pro bono work and report what they’ve done. It’s not mandatory pro bono, but mandatory reporting of pro bono.

“Each year when you fill out the form and you are asked whether you have done pro bono, by not saying you have done pro bono work, you are not keeping your promise, that promise you made when you were originally sworn into the Bar.”

He reminded everyone of the oath they took as new lawyers.

“It’s really a strange oath. It doesn’t say, ‘I will do pro bono work.’ It says, ‘I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.’”

Taking a brief sentimental stroll, he remembered fondly his father, Dan D’Alemberte, who was “the president of the Chattahoochee Bar Association, and he was the only lawyer in town.”

“We don’t have the kind of practice my father had. When he arrived at his office, there were people waiting for him. Occassionally, some of them would have appointments. Looking at my father’s accounts after he died, most of these people were not paying any fee at all,” D’Alemberte said.

“When you were at the house on a Saturday morning, you would open the back door and you’d have to be careful. There would likely be a smoked ham or collard greens on the back porch, as a way of paying him for his service.

“Law practice has changed. The need for legal services for the poor has grown. But there are not many Dan D’Alembertes around with their own practices.. . . We had to organize ourselves in a way that allowed lawyers to connect with the needs of the people.

“You promised to do it. And you have been asked to do it.”

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