When Bay Area Legal Services chief Richard C. Woltmann talks about the skills he looks for in new employees, he points to one that he believes sets applicants apart:
A high "emotional IQ."
What does that mean? People who work well together. Employees who treat the impoverished clients who visit BALS for legal help with respect. Workers with empathy who find fulfillment in helping people in need.
"Our clients sometimes are frustrated, and they haven't been treated maybe by some other agencies necessarily with that kind of respect, and sometimes not even within their own families," said Woltmann, executive director of the nonprofit legal aid group since 1980. "So when they come here, we really want to treat them with respect and dignity. That is one of our core values."
That culture of empathy helped Bay Area Legal Services rank 16th in the small business category of the Tampa Bay Times annual Top Workplaces survey.
BALS provides free legal assistance to people who earn no more than 125 percent or less of the federal poverty level and who have no more than $5,000 in assets. The legal crises facing these clients are civil cases, ones in which a person doesn't have the right to a lawyer. That right is reserved for people charged with crimes that can put them behind bars.
For a family of four, 125 percent of the federal poverty level is $30,375.
The cases BALS takes are not the stuff of television courtroom drama. But they involve problems that are critically important in the lives of clients fighting foreclosure, seeking protection from domestic violence or abused children.
Given limited resources — BALS has an annual budget of $7.5 million from a mix of federal, local and state sources — the nonprofit's lawyers handle only the most serious cases in which the group can potentially improve the life of a client.
"Because there are so many applicants, we can't handle everybody," Woltmann said. "We triage and we handle the clients who have the most egregious and most horrible cases — someone facing foreclosure of a home, an eviction. A lot of our clients are victims of domestic violence."
BALS is not the Public Defender's Office. It does not handle criminal cases. And BALS won't take on civil cases involving personal injury or product liability issues. Attorneys usually take those cases on a contingency basis, meaning the lawyer gets paid if the case is successful.
About 60,000 new applicants telephone BALS each year. The group provides services to about 10,000 of those who qualify.
BALS attorneys have a starting annual salary of $46,430, which is typically less than they might earn in area law firms. But Woltmann said his organization has little turnover among its staff of 45 lawyers, and 55 support staff. The group has offices in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
"We want people when we hire them, if they do an excellent job, we want them to be here for a long time," Woltmann said. "We don't want them practicing on the poor and then going elsewhere. It's rare that they leave because the work is so important."
Attorney Kristen Lang graduated from Yale Law School in 2012 with the career goal of helping at-risk kids. She joined BALS' L. David Shear Children's Law Center, working with dependent children up to the age of 5.
Despite the prestigious legal pedigree, Lang said she finds her work intensely meaningful and plans to work at the legal agency for many years to come. More than money ever could, Lang said, attorneys find great reward in being able to make such an outsized difference in someone's life.
"People are very committed to their work and their clients," Lang said. "I think I feel like I can say folks are here because they want to be, not because they have to be. I have not met anyone at Bay Area who is here as a stop on the road to becoming a corporate lawyer. They really care (about) the actual work we do and clients we serve."
Anola Gutierrez is a BALS paralegal who has been with the organization from its birth in 1967, when she started as a secretary. Today she helps clients secure Social Security benefits.
"Through the years I have been offered much better-paying jobs," she said. "They paid better, but I was just not interested. I like working here. I like helping people."
While the work can be stressful and challenging, Gutierrez said team leaders in the organization are excellent.
"You never see people really upset at anybody," she said.
Woltmann said the benefit of his staff's work goes beyond improving the lives of clients. He said the community also is a beneficiary.
"If a client loses their house, the child gets in the cycle, 'We rent here. We rent there.' They often don't stay in one school," he said. "So they fall behind in school. The house they vacate could very well become a crack house, it could be taken over by vagrants. So besides helping stabilize the family, we are actually helping stabilize the community and neighborhoods."
Woltmann acknowledges BALS is no Google workplace. He isn't installing basketball courts for work breaks nor catering lunches.
"We don't have an open bar," he said. "But I think we all have a sense of mission."
Bay Area Legal Services is headquartered in Tampa at the Corral Wodiska Cigar Factory building at 1302 N 19th Street, Suite 400. The group's telephone number is (813) 232-1343.
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] Follow @Times_Levesque.