When Jasper Kierce, Jr., 75, needed a will last year, he turned to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), which had helped him with some disability-related issues in 1980 after he was burned in a house fire.
All these years later, Kierce now had a nagging feeling that something was seriously wrong with him, and he wanted his will drawn up to make sure his three children wouldn't be burdened financially.
Meanwhile, in Ft. Lauderdale, Harvard Law graduate Tammie Purow was busy setting up her own law practice. After working at large law firms in New York and Florida, she had opted to go solo and work from home, using a virtual law office model.
"I wanted to start with some pro bono work to kind of test out my system at home," Purow said. "I was looking specifically for estate planning opportunities."
She soon discovered FloridaProBonoMatters.org, a new website developed by The Florida Bar Foundation to enable attorneys to find available pro bono cases posted by legal aid and pro bono programs statewide.
While users can search by location, legal aid program, or keywords, Purow wasn't only interested in helping clients in Broward County. So, when she found a case posted by JALA, she didn't hesitate to submit an interest form.
The form Purow submitted through the website connected her directly to JALA, and in turn, JALA connected her to Kierce.
Although JALA Pro Bono Director Kathy Para had never enlisted a pro bono attorney more than 300 miles away to work on a client's will, she and Purow agreed to give it a try.
"As it turned out, it worked out really well," Purow said, so well in fact that she took another case, and another, and another; all of them cases JALA had posted on FloridaProBonoMatters.org. For each case, JALA provided Purow an intake form and some background on the client.
"I touched base with the client by phone, had a conversation, did a first draft of the will and emailed it to Kathy, and she had the client come in to review it. If there were any changes, I would make the changes."
Soon after turning to legal aid for help, Kierce was diagnosed with colon cancer.
"I thank God for working with them and for them working with me and getting things straight. I'm very relieved of the stress and the strain because of that," he said.
Purow found the work particularly satisfying because she noticed from the intake forms that Kierce and others had requested help months prior.
"It was nice knowing that I was able to see it through and that these people had their wills, because it just didn't seem like it was going to happen," she said.
Purow said FloridaProBonoMatters.org makes taking on pro bono cases much more convenient than it used to be.
"Everything is online. You can kind of take on as much as you can. You can manage it yourself. It's great. This definitely is the way of the future, especially for transactional work. There's no reason why you can't do a lot of it virtually," Purow said. "Overall, it's not complicated work. It just doesn't take that much time."
Para said Purow was the first attorney to assist JALA clients remotely through FloridaProBonoMatters.org.
"It takes a little coordination, but what we know is that technology can be used to minimize the travel required of elderly, disabled, or rural clients," Para said.
The ability to serve clients at a distance is vital to leveling the playing field for Floridians, given the state's vast economic disparities and uneven distribution of lawyers. Miami-Dade County, for example, has less than 13 percent of the state's population but more than 21 percent of its practicing attorneys.
The lawyer-to-resident ratio varies widely among Florida's 67 counties, with Miami-Dade having a lawyer for every 170 people, (1) versus one for every 323 in Collier County (2) or one for every 709 people in Polk County. (3) Many of the counties with the fewest lawyers are also the ones with the highest poverty rates. DeSoto County, east of Sarasota, has just 24 lawyers for a population of 35,800, or one lawyer for every 1,492 residents, (4) and is the only county in the state with a poverty rate of more than 30 percent. (5)
"As the third most populous state in the country, Florida's citizenry is both vast and diverse, with residents hailing from communities that vary widely by geography, background, and socioeconomic status. This mosaic is what makes the fabric of our state so strong, but it also creates great challenges in ensuring everyone has access to the legal services they need," said Michael Higer, president of The Florida Bar.
"Fortunately, advancements in technology are helping connect Floridians from all walks of life with capable and talented lawyers who can help answer questions and provide assistance, regardless of geographic proximity. It is a game changer, and one I am most excited about."
FloridaProBonoMatters.org is just one of several initiatives launched last year that have made it easier for Floridians anywhere to get free civil legal help from pro bono attorneys. Initially piloted in Miami-Dade County in February 2017, the site was displaying cases posted by pro bono programs statewide by last fall. By the beginning of 2018, it had generated more than 230 interest forms from attorneys. The number of active cases in the system tripled in the second half of 2017, with 25 programs posting matters in 32 civil legal practice areas. Over the same period, the number of counties with active cases doubled.
The success of the site in its first year is a prime example of how technology will lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of pro bono legal services in the years to come.
But solutions will not come from technology alone. Promise also lies in the development of new collaborative models for pro bono legal services and the expansion of the pool of attorneys and other professionals engaged in volunteer efforts to resolve civil legal problems for individuals, as well as communities.
"Overall funding for civil legal aid in Florida is at a 10-year low, and yet, particularly in the wake of last year's hurricanes, the legal needs of Floridians are as great--if not greater--than at any time in recent memory," said Ericka Garcia, co-founder of Collaborative Justice Partners and former director of pro bono partnerships for The Florida Bar Foundation. "Now is the time to get creative, to pull together, and to form alliances both within the legal community and beyond."
Tech Tools Go Public
While FloridaProBonoMatters.org is designed for lawyers looking for pro bono clients, The Florida Bar and its Young Lawyers Division, the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice...