by Joel Addington
Jim Francis hasn’t collected a penny for his legal services since leaving Smith & Hulsey more than 20 years ago. Yet, he continues to practice law.
So why does Francis – who serves as chairman of the board for a Massachusetts antenna company and president and CEO of an oil company in the Bahamas – do this?
“I wanted to give my free time to the poor,” said the husband and father of six.
After selling his own oil company in 2004, Francis began volunteering his legal services to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), which provides legal representation to low-income clients in civil matters.
The 60-year-old Ortega resident was recently named one of 21 attorneys to receive the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award. He received a similar honor from the Clay County Bar Association in May.
While most of his time is occupied by the satellite antenna design and manufacturing company, Francis said he also spends about 500 hours each year performing pro bono legal work.
The most rewarding case he’s taken happened to be his first. It involved a mother trying to recover $8,000 in back child support from her ex-husband, who received a personal injury award the court had put a lien against.
“They (the husband’s law firm) distributed the money to the husband and kept their fee,” explained Francis. “But they paid her only a portion she was due. And rather than going against the husband, I went against the law firm.”
Francis got the mother her money, and the court ordered the law firm (which Francis wouldn’t name, but said their television commercials run quite often) to pay Francis’ attorney fees, as well.
Francis returned that $4,600 to JALA.
He’s also successfully defended clients against suits brought by debt buyers and is now working with four clients in foreclosure cases, said Gloria Einstein, managing attorney of Legal Aid’s Clay County office and the person who nominated Francis for the pro bono award.
“He’s really willing to dedicate an extreme amount of time and attention to the cases that he’s doing for us and pursue them zealously with all the skills he brings to the table,” she said. “It’s a tremendous thing.”
Those skills come from more than 30 years of commercial law and business experience.
After graduating from the University of Florida in 1973, the New Jersey native spent a decade at Smith & Hulsey before becoming president of Charter Oil Co. — the 18th-largest industrial corporation in the U.S. — in 1983. There, he managed operations in Houston, the Bahamas, New York, London and Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
He was also a partner of First Coast Energy, a petroleum distributor and retailer, from 1987 to 2004.
“He’s had an enormous amount of experience and we were able to connect him with cases that he could use that experience,” said Einstein. “He’s been highly diligent and dedicated to those cases.”
Francis was chosen for the pro bono award by a committee of attorneys in the 4th Circuit. He will travel to Tallahassee in January along with 21 other winners from across the state for an awards ceremony where one attorney will be selected by the Florida Supreme Court for the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, named for the Miami civil rights lawyer.
“I don’t really like to receive an award for something that’s an obligation of the Bar,” said Francis. “But if it helps provide others with an incentive to provide pro bono work, then it’s worth it.”