President’s Message

Distinguishing the Profession with Pro Bono Service

Richard S. Dellinger, Esq. | The Briefs, January 2019 Vol. 87 No. 1

Lawyers have a license to practice law, a monopoly on certain services. But for the privilege and status, lawyers have an obligation to provide legal services to those without the wherewithal to pay, to respond to needs outside themselves, to help repair tears in their communities. 

-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 2014)

The practice of law is known as a “learned profession,” requiring extensive learning, preparation, and specialized knowledge. A “profession” is more than just a job; a profession is a calling for a group of people with specialized skills and training who adhere to common ethical standards. 

In Florida, the common ethical standards for the legal profession are codified in the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. Rule 4-6.1 provides that “each member of The Florida Bar in good standing, as part of that member’s professional responsibility should (1) render pro bono legal services to the poor and (2) participate, to the extent possible, in other pro bono service activities that directly relate to the legal needs of the poor.” In Central Florida, the OCBA Bylaws provide at Article II, Section 7 that the OCBA “has a longstanding commitment to provide pro bono legal services to qualified residents of Central Florida. Regular Members are required to comply with the procedures established by the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association, Inc. for pro bono service or contribution in lieu of service.” 

Lawyers have long provided pro bono service to their communities. And, Central Florida lawyers regularly provide pro bono service to this community. Providing pro bono service is a moral duty deeply rooted in our sense of professionalism. In November 2002, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said:

 We educated, privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice. Providing our services to the underrepresented for no compensation is one of the fundamental responsibilities and obligations of our profession.  We have the skills and ability to make a profound impact on our community.

In 2017, members of The Florida Bar reported that they provided 1.5 million hours of pro bono services and donated $5.5 million to legal aid organizations. When it comes to pro bono, the OCBA leads by example. The OCBA established its own legal services organization in 1967, the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar, Inc. (“LAS”), and our LAS remains strong today. LAS has 43 employees, including 19 attorneys and six social workers. 

LAS staff and our OCBA volunteers provide a full array of services to our community. In 2017 alone, LAS staff and OCBA pro bono attorneys:

  • Presented 47 community legal education and outreach events, serving more than 2,000 residents.
  • Represented every single one of the 2,673 dependent children coming into the dependency system in Orange County.
  • Helped 989 dependent children achieve a permanent living situation through adoption, guardianship, and reunification.
  • Assisted 376 homeowners in foreclosure proceedings.
  • Assisted 419 tenants threatened with eviction.
  • Helped 420 low-income taxpayers obtain $427,048 in Earned Income Tax Credits and other tax benefits.
  • Represented more than 100 immigrants who were threatened with removal and separation from family members.
  • Helped 240 people expunge minor criminal records to remove barriers to employment and housing.
  • Obtained direct client benefits of $2,476,381.99 in past-due support awards and $10,389.24 in monthly awards.
  • Provided legal assistance to 298 veterans in 2017 through a partnership with the VA at Baldwin Park and the Lake Nona VA Hospital.
  • Provided legal assistance to 120 homeless clients through a Homeless Advocacy Project operating at nine shelters and feeding sites in Orange County.

In total, 1,558 OCBA attorneys donated 16,270 pro bono hours on closed cases and projects in 2017. In addition, OCBA members donated more than $400,000 to support our LAS. While there is always room to do more, the service of our OCBA members and LAS staff is laudable.

Many lawyers came to this profession seeking to fulfill a deep sense of service. Many thought their careers would be spent helping people in dire conditions in need of the skilled services of an attorney. But, the realities of the practice can temper those expectations. In 1999, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the Oregon Law Review:

Certainly, life as a lawyer is a bit more complex today than it was a century ago. The ever-increasing pressures of the legal marketplace,the need to bill hours, to market to clients, and to attend to the bottom line, have made fulfilling the responsibilities of community service quite difficult. But public service marks the difference between a business and a profession. While a business can afford to focus solely on profits, a profession cannot. It must devote itself first to the community it is responsible to serve. I can imagine no greater duty than fulfilling this obligation. And I can imagine no greater pleasure.

For some, their entire career is spent in public service. For others, the draw to service brings them to pro bono service as a to their practice. Serving the community for no compensation fulfills that moral duty of service.

As lawyers, we have a vested stake in ensuring that our justice system is both just and equal regardless of the socioeconomic status of those impacted. Equal justice is a fundamental tenet of our democracy; the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” is engraved as a caption on the front and center façade of the United States Supreme Court building. In 1976, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote:

Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building; it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists . . . it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.

This followed a famous statement by Justice Hugo Black, who wrote in 1964:

There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.

The courts recognize that there are certain fundamental rights, such as the loss of liberty (Gideon v. Wainwright) or the loss of children (Lassiter v. DSS), that may not be deprived without the appointment of a lawyer. As members of The Florida Bar and OCBA, we extend those principles even further. Pro bono lawyers represent the interests of abused, abandoned, and neglected children in dependency proceedings; seniors in guardianship proceedings; victims in domestic violence proceedings; homeowners and tenants facing the loss of their home; and immigrants subject to removal and separation from their families. By serving the poor and defenseless, OCBA members help to deliver a just and fair system of justice to the less fortunate.

In this month’s edition of The Briefs, we celebrate the pro bono service of our lawyers and we celebrate our Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar, Inc. Thank you, OCBA members and LAS staff, for all you do to serve the underserved and for your commitment to equal justice under the law.

 

Richard S. Dellinger, Esq., a shareholder with Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed, P.A., practices in the litigation department in the areas of business litigation, trust and estate litigation, and significant dissolution of marriage. He has been a member of the OCBA since 1999.