Recruiting volunteers is no easy task for any organization. Recruiting pro bono attorneys can be even more difficult given the demands on attorneys’ time and the fact that most pro bono legal work falls far outside the most prevalent areas of practice. Utilizing information from Supporting Justice III, the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is paving the way to pro bono success using a playlist that organizations across the country can cover and remake to best suit their own needs.
The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program has represented Florida’s abused and neglected children for more than 40 years. In 2004, the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office was established to provide oversight, management, and support for the guardian ad litem operations. When a Florida court exercises its dependency jurisdiction over a child, the court appoints the GAL Program to represent the child. The GAL Program provides information to the court and independently advocates for the child’s safety, well-being, and a stable permanent home.
Florida’s GAL Program recruits community volunteers who are trained and work as part of a multi-disciplinary team that includes a lawyer and program staff members called child advocate managers. The program had attempted to recruit and retain pro bono attorneys since its inception, but its early pro bono programs were not successful at bringing in volunteers.
In 2016, the GAL Program began to reimagine its pro bono recruitment project with the recommendations from the ABA’s Supporting Justice Initiative in mind. Only then did our pro bono efforts began to flourish. That study identified the top barriers to pro bono volunteerism, including limited time, and an attorney’s perceived lack of skills and training in pro bono practice areas.
The program operationalized the lessons learned from Supporting Justice, and in 2017, launched its Defending Best Interests (DBI) project, recruiting pro bono attorneys to defend the child’s best interests on appeal, writing answer briefs and responses to petitions for writs of certiorari. The GAL Program created a detailed manual that explained the nuts and bolts of the program’s appellate practice, and included explanations of dependency law and process, with substantial relevant case law citations to assist the pro bono volunteer in completing an appellate brief. From the get-go, volunteers sang the praises of the manual, and continue to express deep appreciation for the way it made them feel more comfortable diving into an area of law they previously did not know.
GAL structured the DBI project into small pieces: GAL summarized the cases, broke out the issues, estimated the time commitment, and offered substantive and administrative support. The pro bono commitment was understandable, time-limited, and for a great cause. The Florida Bar’s Appellate Practice Section threw itself behind the project, consistently providing volunteers from some of the best appellate attorneys in Florida. To date, Florida attorneys have donated nearly 6,400 pro bono hours to this project alone. DBI was a hit! Now entering its fourth year, the DBI Project continues to grow, and with three months left in 2020, is on pace to exceed last year’s number of pro bono cases by 15 percent.
Since then, the GAL Program has put new words to familiar music. After finding success with DBI, we have implemented other promising pro bono partnerships that are understandable, time-limited, and offer consistent support. In a partnership between the GAL Program and the Florida Association of Women Lawyers, called FAWL in Love with GAL, pro bono attorneys act as mentors to older dependent youth aging out of foster care. The concept is based on episodic mentoring – attorneys know the expectation is to meet once a month. GAL supported them by developing a live, CLE-certified workshop that provided training on mentoring as well as the basics of dependency law and process. We trained 130 mentors during these presentations.
With the live-training format, we realized we were constrained by resources in terms of the logistics of continually presenting live trainings and reaching new potential volunteers who might not be able to commit to a full-day training. It was time for a remix. To continue to recruit pro bono attorneys and provide them the relevant training they need in the most accessible format possible, Free Florida CLE was born.
Free Florida CLE is a YouTube channel hosted by the GAL Program that serves as a one-stop-shop for Florida’s pro bono attorneys. Attorneys can access free, CLE-certified videos on multiple topics relevant to pro bono practice, including dependency, appellate practice, and trial practice. Each segment is individually certified, and attorneys can choose the courses that best suit their interests, practice area, and pro bono goals. The trainings are organized by topic area and are self-paced, providing attorneys the flexibility they need to complete the training as their schedules permit.
In the three months since Free Florida CLE was released, it has rocketed to the Top 10 and garnered more than 3,300 views. The GAL Program is continually updating the channel with new content. Its newest playlist, Your Questions Answered, allows viewers to submit questions on pro bono legal topics, and an experienced attorney will provide a 2-3 minute answer, directing the viewer to additional resources on the topic.
The GAL Program is also partnering with the Young Lawyers’ Division of The Florida Bar to launch a new pro bono program, Stigma Free Community. Stigma Free Community provides representation for victims of domestic violence at their injunction hearings and on appeal. The GAL Program will be developing legal skills trainings and using Free Florida CLE to assist attorneys who want to take on these cases pro bono to help ensure domestic violence victims get the best representation possible.
The program has had great success in reaching out to the legal community at large, for instance, voluntary bar associations, to assist in developing trainings in new practice areas and has received a positive response. These partnerships not only enable the program to provide high-quality trainings from expert practitioners in diverse areas of the law that impact pro bono clients but create a community-wide buy-in towards the provision of pro bono legal services. More than promoting just the ideal of pro bono service, the GAL Program’s model combining training with pro bono service opportunities has resulted in substantial pro bono engagement that benefits some of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens, and through Free Florida CLE and its partnerships, the GAL Program is committed to continuing to support pro bono service in Florida.
While the program is intensely proud of the pro bono engagement it has cultivated, there is no secret ingredient. Local legal communities and voluntary bar associations have shown they are ready, willing, and able to provide their personal and subject-matter expertise to assist other lawyers in taking on pro bono cases. It goes without saying that barriers exist that make pro bono work difficult, not the least of which is the precious little “free” time attorneys have to take on work outside of the demands of their employment and home lives. But by providing quality training in a format that is easily accessible and self-paced, at least one barrier is diminished, and attorneys can gain the competence and confidence they need to agree to take on a pro bono case. The GAL Program’s experience is that they will.
About the Authors
Thomasina F. Moore (left) is the director of appeals and Sara Goldfarb (right) is an appellate attorney for the Florida Guardian ad Litem Office.