The Power of Pro Bono – Leadership Academy interviews Florida Bar president-elect candidates Lorna Brown-Burton and Scott Westheimer
A project of The Florida Bar Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy
Members of The Florida Bar expect our leaders to recognize the importance of pro bono legal service and personally uphold the values of our professional obligation to serve those in need.
For this month’s column, Leadership Academy Class IX Fellows Marc Marra, Danielle Weaver-Rogers, and Michel Morgan interviewed the candidates for Florida Bar president-elect — Lorna Brown-Burton of Ft. Lauderdale and Scott Westheimer of Sarasota — regarding their thoughts on pro bono service.
Their collective answers highlight how our future Bar leaders will continue a legacy of pro bono leadership and service. Below are their responses.
Ballots for the election will be mailed or emailed around March 1, and must be returned no later than 11:59 p.m. March 21. Voters will have the option of voting online in lieu of returning their paper ballot.
• Can you talk a little about why pro bono work is important?
Lorna Brown-Burton: As Attorneys/Lawyers we took an oath “not to reject … the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.” Every attorney who took that oath committed to helping those who are most vulnerable amongst us and who may not be able to afford representation. As important, every person has a constitutional right to representation. Pro Bono work allows each of us to fulfill our oath, preserve constitutional rights, and make a difference.
Scott Westheimer: I became a lawyer to make a positive impact on people’s lives, make a difference, and to help people. Providing pro bono service makes a positive impact, promotes our profession, and enhances professionalism. As attorneys, we are charged with providing pro bono legal services, and it is an integral part of our service to society. The most vulnerable members of our society deserve access to the courts and access should not be based on the size of someone’s checkbook. The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar specifically set forth this responsibility in Rule 4-6.1, which states that “[a]s our society has become one in which rights and responsibilities are increasingly defined in legal terms, access to legal services has become of critical importance. … [A]s an officer of the court, each member of The Florida Bar in good standing has a professional responsibility to provide pro bono legal service to the poor.” We are in transformational times due to COVID and it has impacted all sectors of society, especially the most vulnerable Floridians, who cannot afford attorneys. This further impedes their access to our court system to ensure they have life’s necessities, such as a roof over their heads, jobs, protection from domestic violence, and other significant issues. The inability of the poor to obtain legal services in these situations can have severe and dire consequences. Attorneys need to be there to provide this access to justice. We must take to heart our Oath of Admission to The Florida Bar which states, “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed…”
• What challenges do you see with getting attorneys engaged in pro bono efforts in Florida?
Westheimer: Due to the tremendous stress and pressure we are under in our everyday practice of law, many attorneys do not believe they have time for pro bono work. In addition, many attorneys who practice outside of the areas of law for which there is the greatest need for pro bono services think they cannot help because they do not know those areas of law. However, there are many excellent resources available to help attorneys provide pro bono service, even outside of their expertise, and on their own schedule. Taking on a case, or undertaking other pro bono opportunities, are part of our obligation as attorneys and we can choose ways to provide such services that are manageable and will make a huge impact on someone’s life.
Brown-Burton: There are at least two main challenges that I see as most critical to getting attorneys engaged in Pro Bono efforts in Florida. The first is that attorneys at all levels are time challenged to devoting themselves to Pro Bono work. As young lawyers you are usually at a point in your career of establishing yourself and your reputation. As seasoned lawyers you are usually busy maintaining your stream of income for your staff and your family. The second challenge is a matter of prioritizing. Pro Bono is not prioritized because generally speaking pro bono does not bring in income and many lawyers are working so as to make a living, pay off school loans, start a family and later making sure they remain financially stable.
• What is one memorable experience of pro bono work during your legal career?
Brown-Burton: While there have been many moments in my legal career of pro bono work, one that stands out to me involved an older couple in my church experiencing hard financial times and defaulting on their mortgage. They believed homeownership was one of their greatest achievement and losing their home would be like the end of all they had achieved. After conducting numerous teleconferences with their mortgage company, I was able to save their home. Now this was all done pro bono and the greatest payment, as there was no money exchanged, was the joy and happiness on their face with a renewed sense of hope. The wife then asked what was my favorite cake which I shared and the next time I saw her she had baked me that cake. This experience was worth more to me than all the money I could have ever received.
Westheimer: I think every pro bono case is memorable, but one does stand out. I was involved in a case where a single mother, and military veteran, bought her first home. Unfortunately, the seller did not disclose there were severe plumbing and sewage issues with the property. When my client moved into the home with her child, sewage leaked into the house causing dangerous and uninhabitable conditions. I represented the single mother and was able to get her enough funds to properly rehabilitate and repair the house, so she and her daughter were safe.
• What resources does The Florida Bar provide to make Florida attorneys aware of pro bono opportunities?
Westheimer: The Florida Bar, with various partners, has a vast amount of resources to provide pro bono opportunities for its attorneys. The Florida Bar has a web page (Pro Bono) for its members that lists various pro bono opportunities. Some of these opportunities are:
Florida Pro Bono Matters — a Florida Bar Foundation program, and website, that allows attorneys to search, share, and volunteer for certain statewide pro bono opportunities from local legal aid organizations.
Florida Free Legal Answers — this is a pro bono program in partnership with the ABA that allows Florida attorneys to provide pro bono advice and answer civil law questions online without entering a formal appearance in any case. Many of the questions can be answered quickly and it provides a convenient way to provide pro bono service because attorneys can help from anywhere at any time.
Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Hotline — this is a great Young Lawyers Division program to provide pro bono civil services for those impacted by a hurricane or other natural disaster.
Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program —this opportunity allows attorneys to volunteer with the Guardian Ad Litem Program in various legal capacities to help children. See also freefloridacle.com: for legal support for pro bono practitioners.
Law School Challenge — This annual Florida Bar Foundation pro bono challenge is currently running and matches law students with law school alumni/mentors to partner with on pro bono cases from legal aid organizations throughout the state. This year’s challenge runs from January 31 to March 25, 2022.
The Florida Bar also provides a list of all the local Legal Aid Programs throughout the state, with links to their websites for attorneys looking for volunteer opportunities and for the public to locate local legal aid organizations to help them.
Brown-Burton: Resources provided by The Florida Bar to make Florida attorneys aware of pro bono opportunities are from many channels such as The Florida Bar Website on the “member” portal as well as the “public” portal. For the public the Bar provides information about “Pro Bono and Legal Aid” and for the members the Bar provides “Pro Bono Service and Reporting, which includes pro bono service volunteer opportunities such as individual pro bono service (Florida Pro Bono Matters; Florida Free Legal Answers; Florida Guardian Ad Litem program; and Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Hotline) as well as collective service options that is geared towards law firms that provide pro bono service to the poor or the working poor so as to handle more complicated cases. Also through the Bar’s Pro Bono Committee and in partnership with The Florida Bar Foundation we have the “One Promise” campaign geared toward sharing the benefits of Pro Bono service and the committee has a Pro Bono Best Practices guide and a Circuit Pro Bono Committees Handbook. The Committee is further working on a Pro Bono Summit that will work across all platforms [such as the Foundation, the FACJC (Florida Access to Civil Justice Commission), directors of LSCs (Legal Service Corporations), and other programs]. There is also the recognizing and awarding individuals, firms, judges, voluntary bars and alike by the Supreme Court and The Florida Bar that further highlights the varied and vast pro bono opportunities across all sectors of the Bar.
• How can I benefit from pro bono work?
Brown-Burton: It is cliché to say and yet it is true. Pro Bono is good for the soul. As we grow in our chosen profession we begin to lose sight of the why or how come we chose to become a lawyer. Pro Bono work reminds us of why we all became lawyers in the first place. From pro bono you also gain a sense of purpose and community as well as knowing that the work you did is priceless when you see the hope and joy given to those most vulnerable along with feeling more grateful for what you have. How can my Firm benefit? A firm can benefit as it builds a climate of firm social responsibility in a world which is becoming more conscious that it is a firm or company responsibility to give back to the community that gives to you. Furthermore more consumers and clients are becoming more interested in what firms as well as lawyers that they do business with are doing in their communities and are driven to these firms because of the firm’s pro bono work and social consciousness. In the end there is then a return on the investment for possibly clients looking to hire firms that are also giving back to the community through pro bono work
Westheimer: One of our core missions as attorneys is to help less fortunate individuals who need our expertise, but who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Pro bono work helps young attorneys, and other attorneys, network, hone their skills as an attorney, learn about a new area of law, and truly help someone in need. It enhances professionalism and lets us give back to society. Law firms benefit from pro bono work because it provides additional practical opportunities, experience for attorneys, and also allows law firms to give back to society. The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, Rule 4-6.1(c) allow a law firm to devise a collective plan where a certain number of firm attorneys can devote their time to pro bono work and the hours can be spread throughout the firm to satisfy the pro bono obligation for other firm members. This allows large firms to undertake pro bono representation in substantial and complex matters that require significant expenditures that smaller firms may not be able to handle. These cases have the potential to make a larger impact on society as a whole, or on a larger segment of the public. Some examples that are listed in the comments to the Rule are class actions, post-conviction death penalty appeal cases, and establishment of full-time community or public service staff.
• Any advice for getting my firm to take the first step toward pro bono engagement?
Westheimer: Law firms can devise a collective plan through the Bar’s streamlined approval process. There is a pro bono form for law firms to submit their plan to their local Pro Bono Committee for review. If a firm is interested in getting involved, it is also easy to partner with a local Legal Aid organization. They have programs, volunteer opportunities, and are always more than happy to team up with a law firm to explore opportunities to represent people in need.
Brown-Burton: I believe that getting your firm to take the first step begins with informing and educating on the value and benefits as well as the return on investment from a business standpoint especially with the increase importance on social responsibility in being of service in the community that gives to you as well the incentives provided by many clients as a factor to the hiring of a firm. There is also the benefit provided to a firm by The Florida Bar through the collective service options in terms of the reporting requirements. You as a part of the firm and who believes in pro bono can be the leader to start a culture shift by advocating on the benefits of pro bono to include a cost benefit or return on investment analysis.
• What are some ways attorneys can be involved in pro bono service if their job does not allow them to directly represent someone?
Brown-Burton: Attorneys can be involved through their local voluntary bars, affinity bars, and local legal aid organizations as well as their substantive sections by participating in their local legal aid hotline providing coverage where lawyers answers questions from the community or volunteer for free clinics on varied legal issues brought forward by the voluntary bars or affinity bars who usually reach out to civic and not for profit groups as well as faith based groups, or can support the facilitation of online information or written pamphlets that are distributed to the under-represented and alike.
Westheimer: There are opportunities for attorneys to answer questions from individuals without directly representing them. Florida Free Legal Answers is a program that allows attorneys to conduct pro bono service online and answer various questions without directly taking on client representation in a case. Legal Aid organizations can utilize the expertise of attorneys for advice, input, and other volunteer opportunities without directly representing any clients. Attorneys can also provide training in their area of expertise to pro bono practitioners. In addition, Legal Aid organizations are always looking for volunteers to serve on their boards and participate in fundraising.
• How do you plan to strengthen The Florida Bar pro bono services if elected as president-elect?
Westheimer: I believe we need to revisit the idea of how we view our pro bono service. The Florida Bar needs to collaborate with the Legal Aid organizations to ensure they are able to provide services at the early stage of a case when help is needed most. The increased use of technology and its efficiencies will make certain legal services more cost effective and easier to provide to our vulnerable citizens. We must explore new and innovative ways to provide this access. We need to revisit the idea of expanded use of law students and Certified Legal Interns in Legal Aid settings to provide practical training for young attorneys while helping the public. We should also collaborate with the Courts, Legal Aid organizations, and The Florida Bar Foundation, to analyze the areas of law with the most significant access issues, then we can tailor specific solutions. I have been a member of the Bar’s Pro Bono Legal Services Committee for the last seven years, previously served as its liaison to the Board of Governors, and am passionate about and well-qualified to lead this effort.
Brown-Burton: As you know one of my primary goals is to promote, increase, and enhance member benefits and resources, which includes leveraging the Bar’s resources and innovation. To that end, as one those I would intentionally and strategically develop a robust communication campaign to increase awareness amongst all the voluntary bars, affinity bars, divisions, and committees as they have the day-to-day reach with the members to educate and engage on all the various platforms and opportunities for pro bono service as well as get out the message of the “One Promise” campaign and look at further incentivizing the rewards to include recognitions of pro bono work more often than annually or even starting at the local level or inside of sections or across all sectors of the Bar. For example, there could be the creation of a more standardized recognition of Pro Bono work by individuals and firms at the local level in partnership with the voluntary bars, affinity bars, and even with sections and committees, etc. Second, I would work with the Bar’s Pro Bono Committee, The Florida Bar Foundation and the Voluntary bars. Affinity bars, sections and committees to promote the various initiatives as well as hold forums or town halls whose focus is on pro bono service with a CLE component.
Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy, Class IX, Fellows Akiesha Gilcrist Sainvil and Patrick Brathwaite edited this column.