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The Florida Bar President Gwynne Young.
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Florida Bar President Gwynne Young talks legal aid funding, merit retention education for 2013

by Joe Wilhelm Jr., Staff Writer

Tampa attorney Gwynne Young was sworn in as president of The Florida Bar in June, leading the statewide professional and regulatory organization for lawyers. It has more than 90,000 members.

Young took time to discuss issues facing the organization in 2013 and how it plans to deal with those issues.

How do you address legal aid funding now that the old formula isn't working?

There are a couple of things we can talk about. You make the good point that the Interest on Trust Account (IOTA) program is — because of how low interest rates are because of the economy — not generating income to The Florida Bar Foundation, which is the group that manages the IOTA funds. As a result its income has dropped significantly. I think this year (fiscal 2012) they have maybe $5.5 million to distribute in grants to local legal service groups like Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

The Florida Bar Foundation has to explore new sources of funding to help with the delivery of legal services. They are working on a strategic plan for development and looking at ways to raise additional funds for legal services to the poor.

That is a work in progress. They have had a strategic planning retreat. They are working with a consultant on that.

I think it's going to be pretty hard to raise the amount of money that they have historically had. They have had an 80 percent drop in revenue. It's going to be a long road back.

The foundation is looking at several things.

One, they are looking at ways to generate more donations to their fellowship program. (It provides full-time employment to about 20 law students for 11 weeks during the summer at legal aid and legal services program offices.) They also have a program in which they raise funds for legal services to children. I think they are looking to make a special appeal there that will go out with the Florida Bar dues statements this summer to try to get enhanced contributions for that as a dues check off. They also have been successful in getting donations from some of The Bar's sections.

The Trial Lawyers Section donated $75,000 to (The Florida Bar Foundation). The Family Law Section donated $75,000. The Real Property Section members made donations and they waived sponsorship fees and refunded some sponsorship fees to the foundation, which totaled over $80,000.

Those kinds of things help, but they are not the answer.

I have been talking to groups about the need for businesses to make donations to the foundation and local legal aid providers. The problem of access to legal services is not just a lawyer problem, it's a community problem and it's a business problem.

It's particularly true when you look at people who have elder law issues, benefit issues, elder abuse, child abuse, children's legal issues, domestic violence issues, landlord-tenant issues. These are all things that affect individuals' ability to be functioning members of society.

If we look at ways that helping people with access to services helps them to be better employees or to be employable, that does show how this can be a business issue.

One of the things the foundation and local legal aid providers need to do is to be able to make the case about why helping them is good for (the community).

Young also discussed pursuing funding that will be available from a foreclosure settlement that will bring $8.4 billion in relief to those affected by foreclosure abuse in Florida.

There is a significant portion of that funding designated for legal assistance for individuals who have been impacted by the mortgage crisis.

I know that as part of (Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's) agreement with the Legislature, The Florida Bar will be working with The Florida Bar Foundation and our lobbying team in trying to work with the Legislature to see if the funds that are designated for legal assistance hopefully can go to The Florida Bar Foundation to administer those funds.

The Florida Bar Foundation is the right group to administer those funds because, one, we've got the experience in administering large amounts of money and making sure they're accounted for and distributed to our providers.

We can do it efficiently. We've got the infrastructure in place, so that you are not going to have to reinvent the wheel to do that.

Attorney General Bondi has been very supportive of the foundation in the past.

Educating the public on merit retention elections for judges was an issue The Florida Bar was involved with during elections. Is that a box checked off the Bar's list? What happens now?

Looking at merit retention, it is worth talking about what we learned and where we are going from that.

Because we are a mandatory Bar we could not endorse or oppose a candidate in the election.

What we can do is to have an education program. The goal of the program was to educate the public and make them aware of where they could go to find out information on the judges and justices who were up for retention. For them to get answers to questions they may have.

We did it through a speakers bureau, which was very successful. We distributed a voter guide, over 350,000 of them. We had 25,000 printed in Spanish. We had access to the guide online in English and Spanish.

We used Facebook and Twitter and other social media. We did some advertising on social media that was very effective about where you could go to find information on the races.

We will have a report on the merit retention education program that will have a lot of statistics and data.

I met with all the major editorial boards throughout the state. We talked to a lot of people about merit retention, and I believe, in the end, that we made a difference.

What I think we learned in this process is that we really need to have an ongoing education effort about the process, the role of the courts and the role of the judiciary because people clearly don't understand it.

The need for continuing civics education became apparent to anyone who was out there speaking and talking about this.

jwilhelm@baileypub.com

@photojoe71

(904) 356-2466

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