Each year, Pro Bono Week spotlights thousands of legal professionals who donate their time to support the community. But this year's week, Oct. 22-28, comes at a time when lawyers are especially vital to helping Floridians recover not just from individual crises — but from a natural disaster that affected millions of us.
On the heels of Hurricane Irma — and with new arrivals from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria — the need is even greater for attorneys to step up for the greater good. The past couple of months have clearly demonstrated the fragility of our lives, and as many in our state face challenges, those lacking financial resources are at a distinct disadvantage.
For most of us, when the lights and appliances turn back on, the crisis is over. But for low-income disaster survivors, it's often just the beginning. Civil legal help is a critical element of long-term recovery. Without it people can be denied insurance, federal disaster relief or veterans benefits because their documents have been lost or destroyed or because they lack clear title to their property.
While most banks and mortgage lenders provided a moratorium on mortgage payments for people severely impacted by Hurricane Irma, this does not mean that payments have been waived; it's merely a waiver of penalties and fees. When the grace period is over, those payments will all be due at once, resulting in an onslaught of foreclosures and a tremendous need for volunteer attorneys.
Meanwhile, those who had civil legal problems before the storm still do. Unfortunately, not just after hurricanes but every day, our neighbors are taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords, scammed by phony contractors, or have trouble collecting on a final paycheck. They may be trying to escape domestic violence or gain custody of a child or grandchild in the midst of a family crisis.
As an attorney, I know we must meet these critical legal needs. People often lose faith in the system if they don't believe they have equal opportunity under the law. If one group has more access than others, it undermines confidence in the results of the entire justice system. That is one reason I volunteer my services in my particular practice area, civil appellate practice. But opportunities abound for all types of lawyers.
I am excited about a new tool for matching pro bono lawyers with people in need of civil legal help in our state. The Florida Bar Foundation recently launched FloridaProBonoMatters.org, the first online platform in the nation that enables lawyers to search for pro bono cases across multiple legal aid and pro bono programs to find a client whose needs they may be best prepared to meet. In this area, Bay Area Legal Services, Gulfcoast Legal Services and the Community Law Program all are listing cases on the site. It is user-friendly and even allows you to send pro bono opportunities to colleagues who could add value to a particular matter.
Helping people hold on to their homes stabilizes families and property values. Helping them overcome obstacles to employment affords them the ability to continue as a contributing member of society. Helping them rebuild their lives makes the whole community stronger.
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So pro bono work is not just good for the client and it's not just good for the soul, it's also good for society. While I always enjoy the personal satisfaction of providing pro bono work, I am celebrating the power of pro bono this week for the greater good it provides all Floridians.
Hala Sandridge is a shareholder at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, PC in Tampa and is first vice president of the Florida Bar Foundation.