This is the first time that DukeEngage Miami has worked with Dade Legal Aid, and Bella and I have realized some unique benefits to our placement. Since we are quite literally the clearinghouse for most pro bono opportunities in Miami-Dade, we can take on tasks in the office that are not available at other placements. These include marketing projects where Bella creates promotional materials and I reach out to bar associations and law firms to encourage more pro bono involvement. Our incredibly friendly, approachable and enthusiastic executive director Karen has also invited us to a myriad of community events, everything from legal journalism panels, the federal court observer program, to pro bono committee meetings in the circuit and workshops on child abuse in addition to hearings and trials in court. We are at the midpoint of the program, and so far, DLA has not only allowed us to gain exposure to different people in different careers, but also prompted us to examine the bigger picture and where our day-to-day tasks situate in the whole legal aid scene in Miami and Florida.
I had the opportunity to read through the agenda and materials of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice meeting on June 2, 2017 and informed myself on pro bono funding, needs, and efforts. 27% of total funding for civil legal aid services in Florida currently comes from the state’s Legal Services Corporation (LSC) program, amounting to $21.5 million (all data are from the Florida Bar Association). LSC funding is central to the continued provision of free civil legal services to vulnerable populations; for example, without LSC funded organizations, 61% fewer Floridians would receive help for their housing matters, one of the most pressing issues in Miami. This funding is far from sufficient, however. 4,213,519 Floridians were below 125% of the Federal Poverty Guideline and thus income eligible for these services; 1,953,948 were not only eligible but also likely to be experiencing a civil legal issue; however, only 80,399 received help from one of Florida’s 30 civil legal aid organizations. This means a general lack of funding for existing and new organizations despite enormous need, and lack of outreach to the the eligible population about these available services.
Apart from traditional legal aid societies, platforms such as the Florida Free Legal Answers help to bridge these aforementioned service gaps. It is essentially an online legal advice clinic for those who fall under 250% of the Federal Poverty Guideline to ask pro bono attorneys legal questions. It is convenient for both the client and the attorney to get involved, requiring less time commitment from the attorney but also permitting them to make an impact. In recent years, the community has been having discussions about having “low bono” discussions, striving to meet the needs of the underserved low-to-middle class population that cannot afford attorneys but cannot qualify for pro bono services. Florida Free Legal Answers seems to be one of such efforts.
With deeper understanding of the legal aid scene, our tasks in the office feel much more meaningful. The Put Something Back program essentially conducts intake interviews as a preliminary screening of clients, and refers them to attorneys that have indicated their interest with us. The legal areas accepted could include anything from family, child advocacy, bankruptcy, foreclosure to non-profits and immigration. We have an extensive database of attorneys that Bella and I update and maintain every day. In addition to these logistical tasks crucial to the functioning of the program, we reach out to the legal community to establish new local partnerships as well as the client base to inform them about such services. Put Something Back has other appealing features such as offering free Continuing Legal Education training for participants (mandatory for attorneys who wish to maintain their licenses), providing malpractice insurance coverage, finding mentorship, and incurring reduced bar association costs. We make sure to highlight these perks while promoting our opportunities to potential collaborating attorneys.
I am excited to learn more about pro bono during the remaining four weeks, and after seeing first-hand the rewards of such work, I would certainly wish to be involved in pro bono if I decide to study and practice law in the future.