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Out-of-work lawyers turn to volunteering for legally needy

Attorney John Salgado works with a client while volunteering at Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa last month.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Attorney John Salgado works with a client while volunteering at Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa last month.

TAMPA — The prospective client came dressed in a ball cap and a polo shirt, a large white envelope stuffed with papers and photographs tucked under his arm.

He believed he had the goods to sue his former employer for wrongful termination, but he didn't have money for a lawyer.

John Salgado took notes on a yellow legal pad and sorted through documents as the man made an animated pitch for help in Spanish. The man rambled for 43 minutes, but the seasoned attorney in a charcoal gray suit showed no signs of impatience.

Salgado had time to listen. He, too, is out of work.

• • •

Hold the lawyer jokes. The truth is, the legal profession hasn't been immune to this ugly economic slump.

Entry-level recruiting is down. Major firms alone have shed 8,000 attorneys and legal staff nationally since January, according to LawShucks.com, an industry Web site.

Instead of sitting idle in their slippers, a growing number of unemployed lawyers are signing on with public interest and legal aid organizations. Some of the attorneys receive a stipend from megafirms that deferred their promised employment after law school. Others work on a purely volunteer basis, driven by altruism and seeking a sense of purpose.

Whatever the motivation, the movement is turning the industry's bleeding into a boon for the cash-strapped law groups that serve low-income citizens.

"They are doing a tremendous service by volunteering," said Susan Sandler, pro bono manager for Bay Area Legal Services' volunteer lawyers program in Tampa. "We really were starving for help."

Gulfcoast Legal Services, which assists Pinellas County residents who cannot afford legal representation, also is reaping the benefits.

"I'm thrilled," said Jane Helms, the organization's pro bono coordinator.

Salgado, 52, was trying to jump in front of layoffs when he left the large insurance company where he had worked for nearly nine years.

But in October, after just seven weeks in a new legal job, he was told that he wasn't a "good fit" and was asked to resign.

Though devastated, he didn't let himself mope for long.

Buoyed by a Booker T. Washington quote — "If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else" — he began volunteering for the Bay Area Volunteer Lawyers Program soon after getting laid off.

"I had to do something with my time," he said. "I had to contribute. I had to be effective."

One day a week, Salgado helps people who don't have attorneys fill out forms for family law cases. Twice a month, he works the intake sessions at the downtown Tampa courthouse, where people come with their problems in hopes of getting free legal help.

His own hardship gives him a new empathy for those who are hurting. Working with the program also keeps him in the mix, allowing him to mingle with the other attorneys who pitch in.

"Networking," says attorney Susan Etheridge, "is the name of the game right now."

She's the Hillsborough County Bar Association's placement director, a position created this year to help out-of-work members pair up with firms looking for contract employees to fill the gaps left by staff cuts.

Lawyers are gravitating to bar associations, trying to build relationships that can lead to case referrals, she said.

The economy is also shaping the continuing education classes offered to lawyers. Recently, Etheridge held a networking seminar modeled after speed dating. Techniques to cope with stress are coming soon.

• • •

With most of his personal time spent taking care of his house in Carrollwood, his two kids and his job search, Salgado considers his time volunteering as a reprieve.

It's not much of an escape. During the intake session Tuesday night, talk of divorce, overdue taxes, child custody fights and bankruptcy swirled around him.

Clients weren't the only ones struggling. Bobby Schneider, another volunteer lawyer, told Salgado that he hadn't been able to find a job since passing the bar exam 11 months ago.

The 27-year-old University of Florida law school graduate has sent out some 50 applications, gotten maybe six or seven interviews. Number of offers: 0.

"That's kind of depressing, man," Salgado said, shaking his head.

In a nearby room, Jamie Gomez helped decide which cases the volunteer lawyer program would pursue. She works 20 hours a week for the program, paid by a Florida Coastal School of Law grant that funds 25 part-time staff attorney positions at legal aid organizations nationwide for recent graduates who couldn't find full-time jobs.

She has no health insurance and $120,000 in school loans hanging over her head. She works 25 to 30 hours a week as a manager at the Limited to get by.

Still, Gomez, 25, is grateful for the legal aid opportunity. She is getting valuable training in public interest law, her desired field.

And thanks to the grant, the volunteer lawyers program is able to hold its family law forms clinic an extra day each week.

"We needed another body to help us," said Sandler, the pro bono manager. "She's really helping us increase, or level off, our service to the clients."

But uncertainty looms. The grant runs out in July.

"Then," Gomez says, "I'm kind of in the same boat again."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

Out-of-work lawyers turn to volunteering for legally needy 04/05/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 12:01pm]
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