Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has named attorney James Kowalski Jr. as executive director, replacing Michael Figgins, who resigned in January to become the executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
The organization made the announcement Tuesday. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid is a law firm of 40 attorneys specializing in providing civil legal assistance to low-income people.
"We are very excited to see Jim Kowalski take on leadership at JALA. Beyond his skills in managing the organization, Jim brings a deep commitment to JALA's mission of public service with him to the role," said Renee Harrell, board president, in a news release.
Kowalski said in the release he was committed to the mission of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
"While I was able to offer assistance in my own practice, a return to direct public service is something I am very excited about. JALA is a treasure in our community for the work that it does and the services that it provides us all," he said.
Kowalski also addressed the economic challenges facing Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
"I look forward to working closely with the community and with city and community leaders to build our way out of the challenges the economic crisis has brought to this organization," he said.
He assumes leadership at a time when the organization faces funding challenges.
The Daily Record reported in August that funding declines for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid led to a layoff of 20 percent of its staff.
A major source of funding for JALA is the Interest on Trust Accounts program, commonly referred to as IOTA, which is
managed by The Florida Bar Foundation. The program was implemented by the Florida Supreme Court in 1981.
With interest rates at historically low levels, legal aid organizations are struggling to maintain their levels of service.
JALA received $1.2 million in 2011 and is projected to receive $550,000 in 2013 and $350,000 in 2014.
The Florida Bar Foundation projects a 73 percent cut in funding over the next four years.
Kowalski moved to Jacksonville from Northern California in 1989 after graduating from the University of San Francisco School of Law. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
He joined the State Attorney's Office and served as an assistant state attorney from 1989-96, acting as division chief of the County Court Public Corruption Unit and senior trial attorney in the Special Assault and Sex Crimes and Repeat Offender Court divisions. He also was a member of the on-call homicide team.
Kowalski has specialized in litigation and handled matters involving consumer protection, including wrongful foreclosure and consumer fraud, complex personal injury, wrongful death and premises liability litigation.
He went into private practice before opening his own practice in late 2006.
He has tried more than 60 jury trials to verdict.
"The board made an extremely good choice. He was an excellent prosecutor and had a good career in private practice. I hated to see him go (when he was an assistant state attorney) because he was someone I relied on heavily," said Harry Shorstein, who served as state attorney for the 4th Circuit from 1992-2008.
In June 2011, Kowalski was named "Consumer Protection Lawyer of the Year" by the Consumer Protection Law Committee of The Florida Bar. He was recognized "for outstanding work protecting the legal rights of Floridians facing foreclosure and helping fellow practitioners of consumer law."
Jacksonville Area Legal Aid began in 1937 when a group of The Jacksonville Bar attorneys banded together to provide legal services to those who could not otherwise afford them.
In 1973, the association was officially named and in 1976 it achieved 501c3 status.