In court, sharing the gift of time

By: Maria Alaimo

After nearly a decade of practicing law in Fort Myers with an established firm, rising from a junior associate to managing attorney and head of litigation, the decision to hang my shingle as a solo practitioner in 2023 wasn’t an easy one.

 Like many who go solo, regardless of industry, the opportunity to be my own boss in a practice focused on personal injury and consumer law was too tempting to pass up. It was a leap of faith, with a narrow margin of error — and a fraction of the collective billable hours compiled by the legal team at my previous employer.

 So why, friends and colleagues ask, do I spend four hours of that valuable time each week offering free personal legal consultations to community members in need?

 It’s quite simple: to give back to the community I’ve called home since moving to Southwest Florida over a decade ago to attend the Ave Maria School of Law. To help those less fortunate. And critically, to give low-income residents of our community a fighting chance when it comes to their civil legal issues.

 That’s because unlike in criminal law, where public defenders are provided for those who cannot afford an attorney, there is no Constitutional right to an attorney in civil law, which includes landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions, probate, debt collection, child custody cases, domestic violence orders of protection and more.

 The spirit of volunteerism in our community is strong, and that extends to those providing pro bono legal services. Take Frank and Patty Talty, husband-and-wife attorneys who retired after practicing law for decades in Massachusetts and teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

 Both can be found on the weekly self-help Zoom calls, collectively volunteering nearly 250 hours of their time. That far exceeds the profession’s expected pro bono contributions here in Florida, where there is no requirement but instead an “aspirational professional responsibility” of 20 hours annually, or a $350 contribution to a legal aid society.

 Unfortunately, even that modest commitment can be difficult for many lawyers to fulfill.

 An American Bar Association survey of nearly 50,000 attorneys in 24 states found that while more than 80 percent had done some form of pro bono work in their careers, one out of five had not. And nearly half of the respondents had not done any such work in the previous year. The most often cited reason: a lack of time is typically the culprit, attorneys report.

 It’s a dilemma I understand. In my previous life, I could not commit these hours. But at least I had a choice.

 At the Lee County Legal Aid Society, a private, nonprofit organization that has provided no-cost, civil legal aid to local residents for more than a half-century, our clients as well as those seeking representation or advice via the self-help clinic usually have nowhere else left to turn. People come to us when they would otherwise not pick up the phone to call an attorney.

 Helping those who can’t fully advocate on their own is at the core of the Lee County Legal Aid Society’s mission. That includes an expanded effort to assist immigrant children and teens who are abandoned, entered the country alone or are victims of human trafficking. The program specifically focuses on establishing a pathway to legal citizenship for abused, neglected and abandoned minors.

 For those who want to help, philanthropy takes many forms. Sometimes it means writing a check or attending a nonprofit gala. Financial support is of course critical. Another form of gift is equally invaluable: the gift of time. I urge my colleagues in the local legal community to tap their talents and expertise and join these efforts to give back to those in need.

 Maria Alaimo is a Fort Myers attorney, vice president of the Lee County Legal Aid Society’s board of directors and president of the Lee County Association for Women Lawyers.

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