There’s a change in who is leading the volunteer attorney program at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, but no change in the attitude and passion for the job.
Melissa Davenport is the new pro bono director, effective this month, taking over from Kathy Para, who is retiring after nine years with the local organization that provides civil legal aid for low-income residents in Northeast Florida.
“This is my dream job,” said Davenport, who now heads the effort to recruit attorneys who volunteer to provide legal assistance to some of JALA’s clients.
The aspirational goal established by The Florida Bar is for each attorney to provide annually at least 20 hours of service to low-income clients on a no-fee basis.
In addition to accepting a specific case and client, JALA offers volunteer opportunities such as participating in Ask-A-Lawyer events to draft legal documents for clients at senior and community centers and free clinics where attorneys advise clients in matters such as family law, immigration, estate planning, small claims and bankruptcy matters.
Davenport was an intern at JALA while attending Florida Coastal School of Law. After she was admitted to the Bar in 2009, Davenport joined the school’s faculty as director of academic success and Bar exam preparation.
About 18 months ago, she was an assistant state attorney, but wanted to get into legal aid full time, so she interviewed for a position as a JALA staff attorney.
After the interview, Davenport was offered the intake director position. Instead of representing clients, she evaluated the needs of the people who come to JALA seeking help because their income level makes it impossible for them to hire a private practice attorney.
“Intake gave me a perspective of what the pro bono needs are,” Davenport said.
She’s taking over the department because Para, who has been with JALA since 2009, is retiring.
Para said the law was her third career, but each involved service and support for people.
Originally a teacher who worked with underserved children who needed speech therapy and remedial reading instruction, Para started a second career when she opened Jacksonville’s first Jazzercise dance fitness center.
As her children grew up, she decided she wanted to go back to school and enrolled at Florida Coastal.
“I decided that if I was going to graduate school, I wanted it to be for something that was going to make a difference and that gave me options,” she said.
Para was admitted to the Bar in 2001.
“I never envisioned myself as a litigator. I went to law school for the purpose of working at legal aid,” she said.
Para began practice as a part-time outside counsel at JEA. She wanted to be able to spend more time with her family after the sacrifice they made to allow her to attend law school for three years and then study for the Bar exam, she said.
Para’s work for the city’s electric and water utility related to alternative fuel vehicles and energy policy compliance.
“It had an environmental bent. I’m a person who has to have a cause,” Para said.
She volunteered with JALA’s pro bono program and after about seven years at JEA, she joined legal aid full-time.
“I landed where I wanted to land,” said Para.
While she no longer will be going each day to her office at JALA, Para said she’s confident pro bono legal aid services will continue to grow – and she plans to continue to help meet the needs of low-income people.
“I’m passing the baton to someone who is passionate about legal aid and pro bono,” she said.
“I intend to not go away completely. I want to be a worker bee.”