Photo: Alex McKnight
Last year alone, Karen Buesing worked 180 pro bono hours. "It's incumbent for those of us who are in a position to help to do so," she said.
Of Counsel - Florida Law
Florida attorneys find rewards in pro bono work
Nearly all of Karen Meyer Buesing's friends were like her when she was growing up in Cocoa Beach — middle-class children of space program engineers with no exposure to poverty. Buesing says she gave little thought to what it might mean to be poor.
Years later, after graduating with honors from the University of Florida College of Law, Buesing went to work for a Tampa law firm. Soon after, she accepted her first pro bono case, working for a woman who - after dealing with an unscrupulous roofer - was in danger of losing her house.
"What I realized from that experience is how tenuous is the thread that holds the lives of poor people together," Buesing says.
After that first pro bono case in 1982 came hundreds more. During 2013 alone, she logged more than 180 pro bono hours - one reason she was awarded the 2014 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Award, the highest statewide pro bono award given by the Florida Bar.
Her community work includes continuing to volunteer for Bay Area Legal Services and previously helping to create the Prosperity Campaign of Hillsborough County, a program that offers financial education to the county's working poor, including providing information about applying for available tax credits. In 2004, the program saved participants more than $11 million in earned income tax credits.
Seven years ago, Buesing and her husband began opening their home to youth who lacked stable housing. The Buesings have cared for six young people so far.
"It's incumbent for those of us who are in a position to help to do so," she says. "Those of us who have become successful lawyers are so very privileged. It's an obligation to reach back and help others and because we are lawyers we are uniquely qualified to do that."
Tampa's Triple Tobias
Earlier this year, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston handed Karen Meyer Buesing the 2014 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Award during a ceremony in Tallahassee.
It was the third straight year that a Tampa attorney won the state's top award for pro bono work.
In 2013, the state's top winner was Jeanne Trudeau Tate, a Tampa-based adoption attorney who handles adoptions pro bono for Bay Area Legal Services and also created a non-profit that gives grants and interest-free loans to prospective adoptive parents. In 2012, it was Rosemary E. Armstrong, a sole practitioner in Tampa who has donated more than 1,200 hours of legal services since the late 1980s.
Tampa's wins don't stop with the Tobias. The state's 2014 Pro Bono Service Awards include:
Judge Emily A. Peacock of the 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa — Distinguished Judicial Service Award. Tampa judges Susan G. Sexton, James M. Barton II and Claudia Rickert Ison won this award in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Stichter, Riedel, Blain & Prosser of Tampa — Law Firm Commendation Award. Clark & Washington, also a Tampa firm, won this award in 2013.
Laura E. Ward, an attorney at DLA Piper in Tampa — Young Lawyers Pro Bono Service Award
The only major statewide award Tampa didn't win this year was the Chief Justice's Voluntary Bar Pro Bono Service Award, won by the Central Florida Bankruptcy Law Association in Orlando. It should be noted, though, that the Tampa Bay Hispanic Bar Association, based in Tampa, won in 2013.
So, what's going on in Tampa?
Kathy McLeroy, an attorney at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt and a co-chair of the Florida Bar's Pro Bono Legal Services Committee, says Tampa has a fortunate mix of supportive judges, generous attorneys and law firms that encourage pro bono work, along with strong leadership from Bay Area Legal Services.
"I personally believe Tampa cultivated all of these great contributors because of the example and presence of Reece Smith, who was nationally known as the father of the pro bono movement," says McLeroy, referring to the late attorney who built Carlton Fields into one of the state's largest law firms.
Judge William Van Nortwick Jr. Of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, is the other co-chair of the Pro Bono Legal Services Committee. He says Tampa's reputation for pro bono work sets an example for the rest of the state.
"When the Florida Bar Standing Committee on Pro Bono was planning for the launch of the One Campaign, the statewide effort to increase pro bono, we selected Tampa as the launch site because of the support there," he says. "We knew we would learn a great deal by working with the bench, Bar and legal aid programs in Tampa that would allow us to perfect the campaign. That decision proved to be correct."