by Kent Jennings Brockwell
Her friends, colleagues and followers described her as an “advocate for justice.” The Florida Bar described her as a “thorn in the side.”
But the 40 or so people in attendance at Thursday’s memorial reception for Rosemary Furman remembered all of her feats, quirks and accomplishments with laughs and adoring comments.
The reception, which was held at La Cena and hosted by Eddie Farah, celebrated Furman’s life and the release of a new film about Furman and her fight for “pro se” legal issues in the 1970s and ’80s.
For those who aren’t aware of her legacy, Furman, who died in 1999, was a legal secretary in Jacksonville in the 1960s and ’70s. Her notoriety began to grow shortly after she started her own legal secretary service. While operating her own business, Furman realized that there was a major need for affordable legal services in the area and, fueled by the women’s movement of the ’70s, began helping poor women in Jacksonville fill out their legal paperwork for divorces and such.
Though the going rate was about $300 at the time to get help with a divorce, Furman would offer her services for as little as $50 and would often help clients for free.
There was only one problem — she wasn’t a lawyer.
Furman quickly found herself in hot water with the Florida Bar for the unlicensed practice of law and called on attorney Alan Morrison for help. With a basic letter that began with “HELP!”, Morrison and Furman began a legal battle with the Florida Bar that would take them to the U.S. Supreme Court and beyond.
Furman’s fervor and persistence, which landed her in jail once for four months, quickly became a major story and the national media pounced on her case and the issues she was fighting for. From Mike Wallace and “60 Minutes” to Peter Jennings, Furman’s dream for better access to the justice system soon became a conversation topic around breakfast tables and water coolers all over the country.
Unfortunately, Furman’s major legal battle ended with her having to close her legal secretary business but the attention Furman brought to the issue of an affordable and accessible justice system pushed the Florida Bar to make some lasting changes, such as easier-to-use forms for legal filings and paralegal support offered by the Clerk’s Office.