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Need a lawyer? Good luck

Treating a worker differently because she is 57, black, pregnant, Japanese, legless, sun-worshiping or female is illegal. Victims can file suit in federal court.

But good luck getting a Tampa Bay area lawyer to help these days, especially if you're a government or not-for-profit worker.

Sure, employment attorneys still find time to pursue deep-pocketed giants like Wal-Mart, Bank of America, Burger King and 7-Eleven, all of which were sued last month by local staff. But such suits are on the wane. Just 35 were filed in federal courts across Florida's "middle district" last month, vs. 99 in October 2000.

Lawyers say they steer clear of discrimination cases now because judicial rulings have made them harder to win - and because practices like overtime law have grown more competitive. Overtime lawsuits in the middle district grew 1,305 percent from 2000 to 2005 and are up 12 percent in 2006.

Some workers refuse to give up. Eight of last month's 35 discrimination cases were filed by government or not-for-profit employees who represented themselves.

Going pro se is no easy road, though. Since suing her Tampa employer last year, Gennette Spear-Hicks has lost her job, been turned away by five law firms and denied a court-appointed attorney, twice.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Lazzara rejected Spear-Hicks' initial request because he said the 50-year-old African-American woman, who is Muslim, wasn't poor enough. When the now-unemployed legal secretary renewed her bid for free counsel last month, Lazzara decreed she knew too much about the law to qualify.

Contact Scott Barancik by e-mail or at (727) 893-8751.