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Pro Bono Legal Services Committee promotes directing juror compensation to Guardians ad Litem or domestic violence non-profits

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Between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, nearly 40,000 lawyers performed 1.51 million hours of pro bono service, up from the previous year’s 1.5 million hours

Judge McEwen

Judge McEwen

The Pro Bono Legal Services Committee is launching a campaign to promote awareness of a Florida law that allows jurors to waive compensation and direct it instead to Guardians ad Litem or non-profits that serve domestic violence victims.

Convening virtually during the Fall Meeting, the panel agreed to promote the program through local pro bono circuit committees, some of which it hopes to revive from a pandemic lull.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Catherine Peek McEwen, the committee co-chair, reminded the panel that the juror fee waiver program is coordinated through chief judges and Florida’s 67 court clerks.

“The circuit chairs can make their chief judges of the circuits aware that this is an option,” she said. “We know that there’s about a handful of circuits that are already doing it.”

Fourth Circuit Judge Virginia Baker Norton, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the local panels, said activity is picking up as the pandemic wanes.

“I think we’re starting to get our sea legs back after COVID,” she said.

The pro bono circuit committees are required to file annual reports, and all but three identified chairs in the latest reports, Norton said.

Norton said her subcommittee is preparing packets that local panels can use to sponsor “advanced directive nights” at nursing homes and adult congregate living facilities.

The events are popular because they give attorneys a chance to socialize while performing pro bono service, she said.

“People are getting excited about getting back together again and doing events,” she said. “I think [advanced directive] nights seem to be a successful way to introduce people to pro bono and reintroduce people to pro bono.”

Gary Lesser, BOG President

Gary Lesser

In a brief appearance before the meeting, President Gary Lesser thanked committee members for its work.

“Legal aid, pro bono, is really what makes us the best lawyers that we can be,” he said. “It’s no accident that we have several Board of Governors members participating, it’s that big of a priority.”

President-elect Scott Westheimer, and fellow board members Lorna Brown-Burton, Hilary Creary, Jay Kim, and Donald Workman all serve on the 25-member committee.

Lesser reminded the committee that he appointed another committee member, Brevard County Legal Aid Executive Director Robert L. Johnson, Jr., as a non-voting liaison to the Board of Governors.

At the Annual Convention in June, Lesser told the committee he intends to showcase its mission to remind the public of the profession’s commitment to public service.

After Lesser left, the committee reviewed reporting statistics that underscore his point.

Between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, nearly 40,000 lawyers performed 1.51 million hours of pro bono service, up from the previous year’s 1.5 million hours.

Slightly more than 27,000 lawyers contributed more than $6.8 million to legal aid organizations during the same period, up from the previous year’s $6.7 million, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on the economy.

“We’re over last year,” said Programs Division Assistant Director Frank Digon-Greer.

Florida lawyers also excel when it comes to participating in the online legal clinic, Free Legal Answers, Digon-Greer said.

Between the program’s May 1, 2017, launch and September 30, 2022, more than 1,033 Florida Bar members have volunteered to answer questions.

The attorneys answered 20,410 of 23,871 questions that were asked by the program’s indigent or low-income clients.

The resulting 86% answer rate makes Florida a national leader, Digon-Greer said.

Free Legal Answers saw a jump in attorney volunteers — 20 — after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest and Central Florida on September 27, Digon-Greer said.

“We got an influx of volunteers after the hurricane, which is great,” he said.

Some committee members asked why family law questions are the least answered. Digon-Greer said the program participants with family law questions tend to present multiple problems.

At least one committee member agreed.

“They’re so complicated,” said Jayme Jones Cassidy, who works with a Pennsylvania legal aid organization. “It’s never an issue of ‘I need a child support hearing,’ it’s always very complex.”

In other business, the committee approved a series of proposed pro bono reporting questions, and a new format. The move comes after the Supreme Court in March approved amendments to Bar Rule 4-6.1 that were intended to simplify mandatory reporting requirements for aspirational pro bono service.

The committee voted, with one objection, to forward the proposed questions to the Board of Governors.


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