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For Francisco Javier Digon-Greer, a 27-year-old Miamian, St. Thomas University’s new Community Law Center offered the right mix of public service with legal and business training. Digon-Greer graduated from St. Thomas’ law school in 2000 but got no callbacks after sending out a flurry of resumes to law firms. He ended up doing constituency work for then state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart. The thought of setting up his own legal practice without the experience of having worked in a firm seemed daunting, until he got word of the center. The center, which opened to clients in northern Miami-Dade at 3896 NW 167th St. in June, aims to address unmet legal needs of the working poor while mentoring new lawyers in legal and business practices. “I thought it was a great opportunity to help individuals who would need help, but at the same time learn to set up my own law practice and be ethical and professional,” he said. Designed to serve the same purpose as hospital residency training for young physicians, the center apparently is the first such program in the country to join the needs of the working poor and recently graduated lawyers. The center currently has two residents and is looking to fill five more slots as soon as it finds the right people to sign up for one-year residencies. Program officers plan within the next couple of years to move into larger offices, where there will be room for 30 lawyers and six supervising attorneys, said Kathleen Dolan-Valdes, a lawyer hired by St. Thomas in April to launch the center. Though the first two residents hail from St. Thomas, Dolan-Valdes said that recently licensed lawyers who are graduates of any law school can apply. Dolan-Valdes said that lawyers in the program provide affordable services to clients whose income levels are too high to qualify for free legal help from legal aid organizations but who can’t afford full-priced services. While the residents help clients, the center helps the residents, with training in business administration, ethics and legal specialties. The first residents are handling only civil cases, from children’s guardianship work to housing issues and consumer debt. Other areas of law include paternity, child support, divorces, custody, adoption and other children’s issues, as well as probate matters. Clients are charged fees on a sliding scale, according to income. The concept of a medical residency program brings to mind young doctors who work long hours for low pay while learning their trade in a real-life setting under the tutelage of senior physicians. Law residency in the St. Thomas program follows that model, Dolan-Valdes said, though the young lawyers are in business for themselves and pay the center rent and other expenses. “It is the ability to spend your first year out learning the practical aspects of law,” she said. “The problem is, when you get out of law school, you’ve got a lot of theory,” she explained. Unless you have a good mentor, it’s hard to learn practical aspects of lawyering and managing a practice. The center is opening at a time when many South Florida law firms are reducing the number of new lawyers they hire, in favor of choosing laterals who already have training, she said. “Lawyers are graduating, getting degrees and licenses, and then there’s no place to go.” One of the first goals for the program is to teach residents how to set up a business. The middle months of the residency are spent with training in specific areas of law geared to meet the needs of the community the center serves but also to help make the budding lawyer more marketable on the outside. The final three months of the one-year legal residency involve training in the transition to solo practice. The training will include what to look for in office space, when to go with luxury and when to go with economy, Dolan-Valdes said. “They’re making the decisions, but we guide them through that.” They get instruction in setting up office supplies, software, intake and billing sheets, generally getting computers ready for assisting clients. The residents take their clients with them when it’s time to leave the program, she added. The original concept was to have the center operate as a legal clinic of St. Thomas University. But Florida Bar rules say that fees can only be shared by attorneys, not by a university, the director said. The program has two main components. One is an educational program, where attorneys learn through assistance on individual cases or in training sessions, with Dolan-Valdes and outside lawyers. Dolan-Valdes, a former legal services attorney, came to the center after having her own civil law practice in the Kendall suburb of west Miami-Dade for eight years. And each attorney sets up a solo practice within the center for one year. The office functions like a regular law firm, with a receptionist and other shared office services. Residents get no stipend — they earn their keep by billing the clients. Florida Bar officials say that nearly half of all malpractice suits filed against attorneys stem from administrative and management mistakes, such as missing a legal filing deadline. Dolan-Valdes said that that’s precisely what the St. Thomas program seeks to address. “The concern we had was that, when graduates go out on their own, either by choice or because no positions are available, what they’re confronting for the first time in their lives is, they’re learning to operate a business. “Most of the violations and malpractice complaints and bar reprimands come from misappropriation of client funds. Some of it is inadvertent. Some of it’s just not properly handling funds in a trust account. We start with ethics and professionalism.” While Dolan-Valdes serves as “the main mentor,” as she puts it, other speakers come to the center to help with training. In recent weeks, outside lawyers have held training sessions for the residents in immigration, family law petitions, employment petitions and immigration litigation. The center is actively looking for new attorneys, usually no more than a year or two out of law school, who want to start solo practices but don’t know how, and who also have a bent for community service. “We’re looking primarily for somebody who has dedication to the population we’re serving, certainly someone who is dedicated to helping the less fortunate,” she said. Digon-Greer was the first recruit, in June. The next, Elida Morin, came on board in November, was a lawyer in Cuba prior to coming to the United States five years ago. Morin worked as a paralegal while attending law school at St. Thomas. Until now, to get clients, Dolan-Valdes has been contacting legal aid organizations and pro bono groups to let them know that the center can serve people who need legal help but don’t meet the income requirements for pro bono help. The center, with an annual operating budget of $200,000, also has received a number of start-up grants — $200,000 from Miami-Dade County, $25,000 from Florida Lawyers Legal Insurance Corp. and $7,500 worth of computer equipment from the Dade Community Foundation. Digon-Greer, who has been handling family law, custody, child support and landlord-tenant cases at the center, said he benefited tremendously from the practical aspects of the program, things as basic but important as how to bill properly and how to collect outstanding bills — “all these knickknacks that maybe I would not have thought about when I opened the practice,” he said.

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