In March, The Florida Bar Foundation was in the midst of a record-setting second season of its Florida Pro Bono Law School Challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Stay-at-home orders and remote practice threatened to stop the program and quell pro bono service. Undeterred, the foundation modified the program and took proactive measures to bolster its signature pro bono program and online platform, FloridaProBonoMatters.org, in the following months.
In April, after Florida’s governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order, the foundation emailed the challenge’s participants and encouraged them to continue their pro bono work virtually. When new participants joined the challenge, they were asked to meet and work remotely. Though the challenge was hampered by coronavirus, it was still able to match 200 lawyers with law students on full representation cases from 20 civil legal aid organizations.
The foundation also adopted and promoted a virtual pro bono approach in the ensuing months. Last year, more than 500 interest forms were submitted by lawyers to FloridaProBonoMatters.org, which currently hosts more than 275 pro bono cases from 34 legal aid organizations. In light of the pandemic and its fallout, the foundation wanted to boost virtual and remote cases on the platform.
Working with its developer, SavvySuit, the foundation created a sister page that features the same online catalog of pro bono cases but displays virtual cases and those related to COVID-19 at the top. The foundation also asked its grantees, who post cases on the site, to begin including keywords like “remote”, “virtual”, and “coronavirus” in the case descriptions to ensure the cases would reach the top of the list.
In addition, coronavirus-related resources were added to the sidebar of the page. Former foundation board member Angela Vigil, executive director of Baker McKenzie’s pro bono practice, worked with the firm’s Wealth Management and Tax Practice to create planning documents for frontline workers. Vigil’s team provided a living will, designation of healthcare surrogate for minors, powers of attorney, and declaration nominating preneed guardian of person and property of minor children forms.
As summer approached, the foundation began to hear from grantees about a significant uptick in cases related to benefits, domestic violence, and evictions. According to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, more than one-million Floridians were behind in their rent, and it expects to see approximately 750,000 evictions filed in Florida over the next four months.
To tackle the expected avalanche of eviction and other coronavirus-related cases, the foundation launched a Pro Bono Pledge campaign. It emailed more than 80,000 Florida lawyers asking them to pledge to take a pro bono case. So far, 90 have pledged and 162 have submitted interest forms on FloridaProBonoMatters.org.
Additionally, the Florida Bar Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law Section, in conjunction with legal aid organizations across the state and the foundation, created the Florida Attorneys Counseling on Evictions (FACE) initiative. FACE seeks volunteer attorneys to represent low-income tenants facing eviction and routes lawyers to FloridaProBonoMatters.org to find a case.
“During a crisis like a pandemic, when there is little time to spare to create new programs, it is heartening to know that The Florida Bar Foundation’s early investment in technology to expand pro bono is paying off,” Hala A. Sandridge, the Foundation’s president, says. “We are proud to be the bridge that connects so many lawyers to pro bono opportunities and legal aid organizations, especially when so many disadvantaged Floridians are in need of civil legal help.”
About the Author
Jessica Brown is the director of communications for the Florida Bar Foundation.