To celebrate National Pro Bono Week, we’re highlighting the great pro bono work being done by attorneys, firms, and bar association. Yesterday we featured William Silverman of Proskauer Rose LLP, and today we’re featuring Ericka Garcia, the Director of Pro Bono Partnerships for the Florida Bar Foundation. The Foundation has been around since 1956, and is “the only statewide organization linking 30 legal services programs in Florida to form a comprehensive, statewide legal services delivery system.”
What makes the Florida Bar Foundation a unique legal aid resource?
The mission of The Florida Bar Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is to provide greater access to justice. Through strategic grantmaking, the Foundation funds civil legal aid and projects to improve the administration of justice and increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the legal aid delivery system. In addition to providing funds directly to Florida legal aid organizations, the Foundation engages in catalytic philanthropy by investing in training, technology, technical assistance, assessment and capacity-building for the legal aid delivery system and works to develop and expand innovative pro bono initiatives. Principal support for the Foundation’s charitable activities comes from the Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) Program implemented by the Florida Supreme Court in 1981. Additional support comes from gifts made by Florida attorneys, law firms, corporations, foundations and others.
We’re a unique legal aid resource because we provide funding to 30 legal services programs in Florida that together make up a statewide delivery system. We also offer technical assistance whether we fund the organization or not. Our goal is ultimately to assist and lift the entire legal services delivery system. The Foundation’s Pro Bono Department is a “hub and connector” of all things pro bono in Florida. By connecting law firms, law schools and others interested in expanding pro bono support with our legal services and pro bono programs in Florida, we’re encouraging and facilitating new conversations about how to adapt to the rapidly changing legal services environment, while encouraging, promoting and retaining pro bono attorneys to assist those in need. We work with pro bono programs across the state, as well as other groups such as The Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services. Attorneys are appointed by The Florida Bar President to serve on that committee to address issues related to pro bono and access to justice. The members invited to participate include a diverse pool of pro bono ambassadors from a variety of backgrounds with a wealth of combined resources.
Why is pro bono work important?
We estimate that in Florida only 10 percent of those who qualify for free legal services receive the help they need. Due to a dramatic and sustained decline in Interest on Trust Account (IOTA) revenue, which is the Foundation’s primary source of funding, our organization has had to cut its grants to legal aid by about 80 percent. This means many legal aid programs have had to cut back on their already lean operations. With pro bono attorneys assisting, they’d be able to serve more clients. Attorneys in Florida are the only professionals who can provide free legal services to those in need. Many lawyers will tell you they went to law school to help others, and even if they did not end up in the public interest sector, this is how they can and do give back. Pro bono attorneys are providing counsel and advice through clinics or hotlines, assisting in full-representation cases and even co-counseling in class actions. It is their work, in conjunction with the legal aid and pro bono programs providing support to volunteer attorneys, that allows more low-income Floridians to receive the legal help they desperately need.
What case/initiative/project are you most proud of?
Our newest and most exciting initiative is FloridaProBonoMatters.org. This first-of-its-kind interactive, statewide website allows various legal aid and pro bono programs to display available cases in one place. In the past, pro bono programs have used different methods to promote cases in need of pro bono attorneys and did not have a common platform. Attorneys, at their convenience, can now search available cases and submit an interest form to the pro bono program for the case or cases of their choosing. Immediately after Hurricane Irma, SavvySuit, the developer of FloridaProBonoMatters.org, built overnight an option to allow us to advertise clinics, so that we could have attorneys sign up and offer limited advice and counsel on FEMA benefits, insurance and other disaster-related issues. The flexible technology they built will enable the developers to create features in the future as new needs and ideas emerge.
What advice would you give to an attorney who is looking to start participating in pro bono work?
Attorneys are in the driver’s seat when it comes to pro bono, and there are several options from which to pick. We encourage attorneys to take pro bono cases or participate in clinics in areas of the law they’re passionate about or at least have an interest in learning more about. The pro bono opportunities are plentiful, but first they have to find them. Of course, they can go straight to FloridaProBonoMatters.org, but they can also contact their local legal aid program and ask to speak to the pro bono coordinator at the organization. If they’re unsure of the program in their area, they can ask their local bar association; or, a senior partner, colleague or other mentor may be able to help guide them in the right direction. Any attorney in Florida who wants to learn more is always welcome to contact the Pro Bono Department at The Florida Bar Foundation at (407) 960-7000.
Once they make the initial contact, it’s important for the attorney to ask for any resources they will need to be successful. Will they need a training or form pleadings in this area of law? Would a mentor be helpful if this is the first time they have taken this type of case? It’s important to know ahead of time what support the pro bono program will offer, and pro bono attorneys may want to ask if there is malpractice insurance through their office that will cover the pro bono attorney’s case under their policy. If at any time the attorney needs help, we encourage them to reach out to the program as often as needed.