Civil Legal Aid Firms Protect the Most Vulnerable
The Bencher—May/June 2020
By Raymond T. “Tom” Elligett Jr., Esquire, and Alexandra Pullara
A nonprofit law firm north of the Tampa Bay area had a poster in its window—a plain wooden coffin with a modest flower arrangement on top. The caption read: “She went to the emergency room 16 times and only got flowers once”.
Like similar firms across the county, Tampa Bay’s Bay Area Legal Services provides free civil legal services to low-income residents. Clients include domestic violence victims, elder abuse victims, children in the foster care system, struggling veterans, and many more.
Bay Area Legal assists over 16,000 people each year, ranging from issues that can be addressed quickly to those requiring litigation and full trials. Special programs include the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center, Judge Don Castor Community Law Center, and the Medical Legal Partnership (MLP) Veterans Initiative.
Rather than dwell on statistics, a couple of recent representations illustrate the deep personal impact nonprofit firms such as Bay Area Legal have on our communities and families living in them.
When Jesse Hughes first visited the on-site MLP at the Bay Pines VA, he was homeless. He was undergoing treatment for substance abuse at the VA Domiciliary, and he wanted to know if he qualified for benefits.
Bay Area Legal Services attorney Cherilyn Hansen, Esquire, assisted Hughes with applying for his benefits, making sure to note, to expedite the claim, that he was homeless and living at the VA.
In less than a month, Hughes was awarded the pension benefit. His pension gave him the foundation he needed to transition back into the community. Today, Hughes is drug-free, has stable housing, and works full time at the VA as a medical supply technician.
Hughes praises his experience: “Before I met with Cherilyn, the things that I had to accomplish were overwhelming and too much for me to handle, considering the treatment I was going through at the same time. I consider myself a miracle, and I would hope that these services can be provided to other veterans as they need them. Without Bay Area Legal Services, I wouldn’t be the success I am today.”
Lisa Garvey had been fostering children with special needs for just a few years when she received a phone call from the hospital about a 3-day-old newborn boy who was being airlifted due to critical injuries sustained from abuse while in the care of his biological mother and her boyfriend. Garvey was told the baby might not make it, but that if he did, he would need special care.
After multiple surgeries, baby Jeremy made it through! He was taken into a loving home with Garvey and her family, where he received around-the-clock care. However, Jeremy’s medical issues would not be the only battle to fight. Garvey was informed that Jeremy might be recommended for care at a more institutional foster home or with a member of his biological family.
Luckily for Jeremy, from the day he was airlifted, he had been assigned legal and social representation from Bay Area’s Children’s Law Center to provide him with high-quality and holistic legal representation. After assessing the situation, the center determined that Garvey was Jeremy’s safest and best possible option at finding permanency in a safe, loving home.
Today, Jeremy is thriving with his adoptive family. His doctors report that he is achieving milestones they never thought possible.
Bay Area Legal is a firm of 66 lawyers, who, along with dedicated paralegals and staff, provide these services and more. Additionally, they partnered with 335 pro bono attorneys in 2019 to extend the level of service available to clients. To state the obvious, to operate a powerhouse law firm such as Bay Area Legal—which receives no income from clients—requires significant funding. Like many civil nonprofit firms, Bay Area Legal receives generous contributions from numerous organizations, including the Legal Services Corporation, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, United Way, and many more.
Local lawyers and law firms donate to Bay Area Legal annually and through special gifts. Two local American Inns of Court—the J. Clifford Cheatwood and Stann Givens Family Law Inns—collect donations for Bay Area Legal at their monthly meetings and special events. The donations are then matched by law firms.
As lawyers privileged with a license to practice law, we owe it to our communities to give back. As many have said, of those to whom much is given, much is expected. Lawyers can give back by volunteering pro bono, contributing to legal aid firms, and doing both. Each of us can—and should—do our part.
Raymond T. “Tom” Elligett Jr., Esquire, is an experienced appellate and trial lawyer with Buell & Elligett in Tampa, Florida. He is a past president of the J. Clifford Cheatwood American Inn of Court and serves on the Development Council of Bay Area Legal Services. Alexandra Pullara is the development director of Bay Area Legal Services.