Donating Hours to the Poor
Wearing his signature bow tie, Sandy D’Alemberte stood before the Florida Supreme Court in June to argue against the lead attorney for Gov. Rick Scott. The congenial D’Alemberte certainly wasn’t motivated by the amount of money at stake or even the exposure. He had argued before the court plenty of times.
Donating Hours To The Poor Lawyers give back to their community by embracing pro bono work
By Lilly Rockwell
Wearing his signature bow tie, Sandy D’Alemberte stood before the Florida Supreme Court in June to argue against the lead attorney for Gov. Rick Scott.
The congenial D’Alemberte certainly wasn’t motivated by the amount of money at stake or even the exposure. He had argued before the court plenty of times.
He was there to help the legal team for Rosalie Whiley, a poor blind woman who had sued over a decision early in Scott’s administration to freeze rule making by state agencies. The decision had set off a chain of events that made it difficult for her to apply for food stamps. Her lawsuit would help answer an important question over how much power the governor has to dictate state agency rules.
Tallahassee-based D’Alemberte is one of the most well-known attorneys in the state. He’s the former head of the American Bar Association, the former president of Florida State University and former law school dean at FSU.
Despite the clout, he and a number of other attorneys on Whiley’s case were working for free or what’s known as pro bono publico — for the public good.
The fact that Whiley’s legal team was working for free is not unusual. The Florida Bar, in fact, strongly encourages attorneys in the state to do at least 20 hours of pro bono work each year and the oversight board tracks the number of pro bono hours each attorney logs. Attorneys who regularly log the most pro bono hours receive awards.
Lawyers say taking on clients who cannot afford them is the most rewarding part of their jobs. Often, they say, it’s the pro bono cases that lead to greater exposure in the media, or precedent-setting cases that change case law for decades to come.
“You can really see you are making
a difference in somebody’s life, or on a particular issue, as opposed to an individual case that is just about money,” said Patrick McCarthy, an attorney for Matthews, Jones and Hawkins in Destin.
Finding Time for Pro Bono
Though the legal profession has had a long history of offering services for free, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Florida began seriously examining the issue of whether there was enough free legal assistance for the poor.
Finally, in the 1990s, the Florida Bar put in place a formal policy for encouraging lawyers to do pro bono work and established a way to track how much free legal assistance Florida lawyers provide.
There are a variety of ways a Floridian who cannot afford a lawyer can get one.
If it’s a criminal case, a public defender is appointed. If it’s a divorce or civil case, often a legal aid agency provides legal assistance for free and can refer certain cases to private firms that have agreed to take on pro bono cases.
The amount of pro bono cases an attorney takes on varies, depending on the size of the firm and the emphasis it places on pro bono work.
“I try to make it standard practice to keep two pro bono cases going at all times,” said Wanda Clapp, a family and criminal law attorney in Fort Walton Beach. “It is part of my obligation as an attorney to make sure people who can’t afford representation are able to have it.”
Clapp said some of her cases come to her through referrals from local legal aid agencies, such as Legal Services of North Florida, while others she finds on her own. Often, Clapp said she will consult with a new client and decide they can’t afford her, so she offers her representation for free.
“I give every one of my clients 100 percent of my effort,” Clapp said. “I don’t just work on a case for a little while because they are free. If I take a case, I take it because I believe in it and I want to work on it whether I get paid or not.”
At larger firms, there are often pro bono committees that track whether lawyers are doing enough volunteer work and help steer clients their way.
McCarthy said when he was hired at Matthews, Jones and Hawkins, the 12-person firm had no pro bono policy. He promptly helped the firm establish one that encourages each attorney to do 50 hours of pro bono work each year.
“It sets the position of the firm. It says ‘this is important, this is equally important as making money and representing paid clients, ’ ” McCarthy said. He said the policy could help the volunteer spirit “become part of the fabric of firm culture.”
Some attorneys naturally do more pro bono work because of the area of law they specialize in. Tallahassee-based attorney Lauchlin Waldoch focuses primarily on elder law. She helps families or individuals who need to set up trusts, fight abuses in nursing homes or better understand what health insurance they are entitled to.
“People come to us who have no money,” Waldoch explained. She typically makes a determination on the spot whether to represent that client pro bono.
Her firm, Waldoch & McConnaughhay, also regularly does volunteer work on the weekends at nursing homes, dispensing advice to those who sign up for a consultation. “There is definitely a steady stream,” she said.
Waldoch said her workload is high-volume, meaning she churns through many meetings and cases in a given day, juggling as many as 100 pro bono cases at once.
Managing such a high number of clients can be a juggling act. “Sometimes it requires working nights, weekends,” Waldoch said. “But you just do it. We wouldn’t ever not take on a pro bono client because we needed the money. There is always another hour in the day.”
Lawyers say often it is the pro bono cases that are the most memorable or high-profile.
McCarthy remembers helping secure a 110-year jail sentence for a father who had sexually and physically abused his two children. He also successfully sued him for financial damages. He couldn’t undo the emotional damage, he said, but he was content that he helped the children seek justice.
“One of the nice things about pro bono is you often get more satisfaction out of those than any other you might take,” McCarthy said.
Clapp said she is currently working on a case to help a father regain custody of his children. “He had nowhere else to turn,” she said. “He tried legal services and his spouse had already gotten retained by them.” That conflict meant they couldn’t represent him. A domestic violence charge combined with a pending divorce meant he wasn’t granted visitation with his kids. By luck, Clapp said he found her through a friend.
Clapp helped convince a judge to give him visitation rights.
“That is one I can see very clearly that if he didn’t have an attorney he was really at risk of never seeing his kids again,” she said.
So far, she has spent the equivalent of $6,000 in billable hours on that case.
Sometimes, pro bono cases are the ones that grab a lot of media attention.
No one knows this better than D’Alemberte, the attorney who argued before the Florida Supreme Court. He has represented several death row inmates, including William Wilton Dedge, who was imprisoned for 22 years for a crime he did not commit. D’Alemberte toiled for years on the case and eventually won a $2 million award and a personal apology from the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
In the case of Whiley, the poor blind woman who sued Scott, D’Alemberte and the rest of Whiley’s legal team won their fight against the governor.
In doing so, they set an important legal precedent for how much power a governor yields over state agencies and helped not just Whiley but scores of other people who were affected by Scott’s decision to freeze rule making.
PRO BONO WORK
June 2006 to July 2007
Hours donated: 1,398,467
Pro bono dollars contributed: $4,446,486
June 2007 to July 2008
Hours donated: 1,489,099
Pro bono dollars contributed: $5,288,466
June 2008 to July 2009
Hours donated: 1,545,157
Pro bono dollars contributed: $4,443,830
June 2009 to July 2010
Hours donated: 1,614,676
Pro bono dollars contributed: $4,637,265
THE FLORIDA BAR FOUNDATION
Florida’s 31 legal aid agencies provide much of the pro bono work in the state. These agencies are funded from a variety of sources, such as federal, state and local grants as well as donations. But a good portion of their funding comes from the Florida Bar Foundation. The foundation receives its money from the interest from trust accounts that lawyers use to store money for clients.
» Of the $99.5 million received by Florida legal services organizations in 2010, $36.6 million, or 36.8 percent, came from the Florida Bar Foundation.
» More than 102,340 cases were completed by Foundation-funded providers in 2010.
» Of the $36.6 million the foundation spent in 2010, most of it went to “general support grants,” with some funds spent directly on hiring legal aid attorneys, or specialized programs such as attorneys for mortgage foreclosure cases.
» The most common legal aid cases fall under family or housing issues, with the least popular case type being employment law.