Monday, September 15, 2014

Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee: Why S-2014-038 Matters

By Judge Catherine Peek McEwen

Do you know that Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. has ordered almost all Hillsborough County Bar Association sections to appoint representatives to sit on the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee (13th PBC)? The latest version of the order, Administrative Order S-2014-038, is effective July 1, 2014, and taps dozens of organizations to take a seat at the meeting table.

Besides not wanting to risk contempt of court by ignoring the order, your participation or the participation of a reliable and active designee is important to the wellness of your section members, as well as the wellness of the judicial system itself. Why?

First, I should explain what the 13th PBC is. The Florida Supreme Court requires the establishment of a pro bono committee in each judicial circuit in Florida. The 13th PBC serves three primary functions: First, to promote pro bono legal services and provide oversight and direction of such services in Hillsborough County; second, to collect data to assess attorney participation in pro bono programs in our county and report same to The Florida Bar Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services; and third, to publicly recognize attorneys who undertake pro bono work.

Sections are tasked with providing a representative to attend meetings to help the 13th PBC meet its mission. That person could be you or someone you are confident will calendar and faithfully attend the quarterly committee meetings and annual award ceremony and follow up on tasks assigned at the meetings or in between meetings.

Each section is expected to either create its own pro bono project or participate as a group in some other entity’s, e.g., by scheduling a group outing to an evening intake clinic operated by a legal aid provider. The section’s rep on the 13th PBC reports the effort. The section members bond during the project, making for a robust section networking experience. 

The section reps also report back to section members on what pro bono opportunities are available so members individually may choose from among many forms of pro bono service, both as to subject matter and time commitment. This helps section members fulfill their solemn oath to help the defenseless and oppressed (no one wants to be considered a reneger!).

And section reps report back on award opportunities. Trust me, the esteem of a lawyer who is publicly recognized for pro bono service goes way up in the eyes of the judges before whom he or she appears!

The system also benefits when the section reps actually follow through on committee duties. Pro bono needs are met in increasing numbers, which means more indigent parties obtain meaningful access to the courts. And when pro se parties get lawyered up, that translates into smoother case processing and more efficient hearing dockets for all cases (read: less expense and delay to paying clients).

So when you get an email from incoming 13th PBC Chair Rosemary Armstrong asking for the name and contact information of your section’s rep, please don’t ignore it. It’s your responsibility as a section leader to ensure compliance with Judge Menendez’s order and, ultimately, the success of the 13th PBC mission.