Florida Legal Services Firms in Detente

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June 12, 2013; Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Apparently, there is a controversy brewing at Gulfcoast Legal Services (serving Sarasota and Manatee, Florida) due to a personnel controversy that resulted in the firing of the Sarasota office director by the new CEO of the organization. Since we don’t know the interpersonal dynamics, it is impossible for us to weigh in on the specifics. However, the coverage in the newspaper made a contrast between the GLS model of using paid staff attorneys and the approach of Legal Aid of Manasota, which takes cases handled largely by pro bono private attorneys.

Manasota draws on a network of 430 private attorneys, provides them training, matches them up with cases that fit their skills, and, according to the Herald-Tribune, is the “official legal aid support agency” recognized by the local courts, according to Circuit Judge Lee Haworth who chairs the Pro Bono Advisory Board.

Relying on cash donations and volunteer labor, Manasota operates on a small $700,000 budget. “Grants have guidelines, and it’s almost a full-time job to meet grant requirements,” according to Stacy Dillard-Spahn, the president of the Legal Aid of Manasota board. “We need cash in order to better meet the needs of the community.”

The controversy revolved around GLS’s CEO directing the Sarasota office not to take or continue a specific client. The indication in the news coverage is that the GLS issue has spawned something of a debate comparing volunteer-dependent operations like Manasota to staffed programs like GLS. That prompted an op-ed from the chair of the GLS board, Stetson University professor James W. Fox, Jr., defending the legal services model.

Fox made two important points. One is that there’s a reason why there are federally funded and grant-supported legal services groups like GLS: there isn’t enough money and there aren’t enough attorneys willing to work pro bono to guarantee civil representation to all lower income people in need. But even with grants, “GLS cannot assist every person in need; vulnerable individuals who are not indigent or elderly or don’t otherwise fit grantors’ criteria cannot be assisted by GLS,” he says. “The fact that we, as a society, do not provide enough money to ensure access to legal services to all people who need it is an indictment of us all.”

He also addressed the contrast of GLS with the volunteer model. “GLS focuses on direct legal representation in civil matters by staff attorneys, assisted by qualified volunteer counsel. Some other legal service organizations use a model of a small staff coordinating a large base of pro bono counsel. Both types of organizations are essential to the full complement of providers in any region.”

That’s important. There is an unfortunate backlash occurring against—and sometimes within—the nonprofit sector that elevates volunteer-based charities and disparages grant-supported professional nonprofits. Fox notes that it’s not an either-or scenario. Both are needed to help meet the legal needs of poor people.—Rick Cohen