by Kathy Para
JBA Pro Bono Committee Chair
Marla Buchanan feels very fortunate to be an attorney. “I’m blessed to be in a position to help others, where I can make even a small difference in people’s lives.”
It is that devotion that makes Buchanan the obvious selection for the Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s December “Pro Bono Attorney of the Month.”
Buchanan understands that not everyone is afforded the same opportunities in life. Her father grew up in an orphanage suffering tremendous hardship as a child and young adult because of abuse. He taught her to appreciate her good fortune and to give back to the community.
Her devotion to pro bono work began early in her career. As a new attorney without much experience under her belt, Buchanan was approached by a young couple who were desperate to have their son returned to them.
The child, who suffered from a health disorder requiring a special and expensive diet, had been taken away from the struggling couple when his grandmother was awarded custody through dependency court.
Even though the parents followed the dependency process, the Department of Children and Families closed the case and the grandmother refused to return the child.
Without custody of their son, the parents could only see him sporadically at the discretion of the grandmother because they could not afford to hire an attorney.
Buchanan went to work and quickly arranged a hearing in which the judge ruled on the spot that the boy should be returned to his parents immediately.
“I went with them to pick up their son that day to insure the school would release him and the boy ran and leaped into his crying father’s arms, ecstatic with joy he was going to go home with his parents,” recalls Buchanan. “It was one of the most touching moments of my career.”
That case taught Buchanan an important lesson. Although she had no experience in what she had accomplished, she was in a position to help and was not afraid to ask questions.
“The little bit of time I put into that case had a lifetime effect on the family,” says Buchanan. “Had I not taken the case, that family may never have reunited.”
Today, Buchanan practices exclusively in the area of family law. She is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in this area and certified as a family law mediator.
Despite the busy schedule she keeps, Buchanan still remains involved in pro bono work because she feels it’s an area where she can truly help people, so it’s her duty and obligation to give back to those less fortunate.
In addition to representing individuals in pro bono cases, Buchanan was instrumental in starting a family law group assistance clinic at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, “The Child Support Modification Clinic.”
“With hundreds of requests for representation every month, it’s impossible for our three family law staff attorneys to meet the need,” says JALA family law unit lead attorney Jamie Ibrahim. “We brainstormed with Marla about our desire to start a group information clinic focusing solely on child support modification and Marla took the idea and ran with it.”
Buchanan created the content outline for the monthly presentations, recruited pro bono attorneys to conduct the clinics, and does the reminder e-mails.
“With the help of other pro bono attorneys, Marla is giving us the opportunity to empower and educate people in need. We are so grateful for her willingness, vision and initiative,” says Ibrahim.
“We all have busy lives,” Buchanan says, “but there are many ways to provide pro bono services that don’t require huge time obligations.”
Buchanan suggests several ways to volunteer, including: teaching a free clinic at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, giving legal advice at the Sulzbacher Center once a month, helping pro se victims of domestic violence fill out paperwork through The Missing Link of Jacksonville once a month, or agreeing to take on a pro bono case.
“The rewards you get back from helping others can often far exceed any monetary compensation, and I believe it is a way of saying thank you and being appreciative for our own good fortune,” Buchanan urges.
Attorneys in the Fourth Judicial Circuit are encouraged to be the one for a client in need. Contact Kathy Para, Chair, JBA Pro Bono Committee, [email protected]; 356-8371, extension 363, for information on how to volunteer with Guardian ad Litem, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, the Office of Public Defender, or The Missing Link.