After conducting a nationwide search for a new executive director, the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid board of directors Nov. 22 announced the hiring of local attorney Jim Kowalski to fill the position vacated by longtime director Michael Figgins, who is the new executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
Kowalski is a 1989 graduate of the University of San Francisco School of Law and began his legal career as an assistant state attorney in the 4th Circuit. He was named division chief of the County Court Public Corruption Unit and senior trial attorney in the Special Assault/Sex Crimes and Repeat Offender Court.
He left the State Attorney's Office in 1996 to work in private practice, specializing in litigation. He handled matters involving consumer protection, which included wrongful foreclosure and consumer fraud, complex personal injury, wrongful death and premises liability litigation.
Kowalski was recognized by The Florida Bar in 2011 as its "Consumer Protection Lawyer of the Year" by the Bar's Consumer Protection Law Committee.
Kowalski has served as director for a little more than 60 days and he agreed to discuss his transition and the future of the organization under his watch.
How difficult has the transition been from solo practitioner to executive director?
It's been very difficult because I have kind of a specialized practice for part of my practice, which is the consumer litigation, which sort of led me to work with legal aid. The consumer practice is quite a niche and so I've got some other folks in St. Augustine that I'm working with on the transition. It's like anybody else who has a niche practice, you are sometimes a victim of your own success. (The JALA board of directors) was aware of my situation. Like last night, I finished work here at 7 (p.m.), drove home to Mandarin, worked at my office there for a bit and that was my day.
Do you have your plan in place for the operation of JALA?
That's something that we are doing as an office. Some of it is simply me needing to learn a little more about what our units do. The big thing is making sure that folks understand how significant an office like this is to economy and to the community. The cities we look at around the country that are considered destination cities are the cities that do it right. I don't think it is a great coincidence that a lot of them have very strong legal services organizations that are supported by civic leaders that are well supported by the municipalities.
We don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can look at other models that are successful. St. Augustine is great example. St. Johns County is a great example.
(The units Kowalski mentioned include: Baker Defense Project, Consumer Protection, Community Counsel, Child and Youth Advocacy, Deaf-Hard of Hearing assistance, Elder Law, Employment/Unemployment, Fair Housing, Family Law, Housing (Landlord-tenant), Health and Public Benefits, Mental Health Advocacy Project, Mortgage Rescue Project, Prisoner Re-Entry Project, Refugee Immigration and Ryan White. These units serve 17 counties.)
Kowalski also discussed how JALA is currently trying to save the Baker Defense Project because the grant that is paying for the lawyer working in Nassau County has ended.
We have a small presence in Nassau County. We have the Baker Defense Project in Nassau County. (Karen Winston) is the only advocate (from JALA) that goes to Baker County. Every immigration detainee that is detained by Homeland Security goes to the Homeland Security detention facility in Baker County. (Winston) is the only advocate that serves that community. Her grant is over and we are in the middle of trying to figure out how to save that job. Her salary is not included in the $678,000 deficit, which exists after JALA did a 20 percent cut across the board before I came in.
What was her salary?
I want to say our match to the grant is about $30,000, so I'm looking for $30,000 to put that toward her position to save that job.
What do you plan to do to address the deficit?
(Legal aid organizations) have a very small amount that we are being told might be parceled out across the state from the foreclosure settlement money.
(Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Thursday that funding from Florida's portion of the national mortgage settlement with the nation's five largest mortgage services will be available to legal aid organizations across the state. Bondi announced that $5 million of the $60 million total awarded to the state will be used to fund legal aid programs. Florida has about 71 legal aid organizations.)
My first project is to get the legal community educated. The first step was to say to the Jacksonville legal community, "This is an organization that you are very linked to and we are in serious problems."
The next step is to have some discussions with some of the civic leaders in the municipalities that we serve.
The third step is getting out to the for-profit community and engaging some of the business leaders to show them how they benefit from JALA.
I will show you the return on investment. I will show you the measureable outcomes. I'll prove to you how we do this.