Prominent civil rights litigator Randall “Randy” Berg Jr., credited with pioneering a popular approach to funding legal representation for the indigent, died Wednesday morning at the age of 70.
Berg had retired from his position as executive director with the Florida Justice Institute in January after a yearslong battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that erodes muscle functions. After co-founding the Miami-based civil rights litigation and public advocacy firm in 1978, he spent four decades representing the underserved and disadvantaged. He also helped spearhead the creation of interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, which allows the use of interest accrued on clients’ trust accounts held by attorneys to funding legal representation for low-income residents.
Dante Trevisani, Berg’s successor as executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, said Berg was “a giant” in the civil rights community.
“He … taught me everything I know about how to be a lawyer,” Trevisani said. “He was one of the most respected civil rights lawyers in Florida, and maybe the country.”
Berg was born in 1949, and spent his childhood in Jacksonville. After receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1971, he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. Soon after graduating from the George Mason University School of Law in 1978, Berg set to establishing the Florida Justice Institute alongside Rod Petrey, the firm’s current board chair.
Benjamine Reid, chair emeritus of Carlton Fields and a shareholder in the firm’s Miami office, said he and Berg “were best of friends.”
“Some number of years ago when the Florida Justice Institute needed to move, we agreed to take them in here for no rent,” Reid said. “As a result of that, our lawyers had the opportunity to work with the Florida Justice Institute on various pro bono cases over the years.”
Trevisani characterized Berg as “the lawyer other lawyers would look to” when they had to bring a civil rights case.
“Whenever somebody would say ‘Somebody ought to file a lawsuit about this,’ Randy Berg was their call,” he said. “He was always open, he was always willing to help lawyers and to hear people out.”
Berg’s reputation for helping those in need permeated his legal career. He often represented the incarcerated and fought for reforms within Florida’s prison system. This included securing more compassionate treatment for inmates with physical disabilities and extending medical treatment to prisoners with chronic health problems. In 2017, Berg helped procure a settlement with the Florida Department of Corrections in a lawsuit contending corrections officials had failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Trevisani singled out Berg’s work on behalf of plaintiffs in housing discrimination cases, noting Berg often represented plaintiffs who’d been denied housing “because of their race or because of their disability.” The Florida Justice Institute executive director also acknowledged Berg’s role in building Dade Legal Aid’s pro bono program, “Put Something Back,” as well as enabling the spread of interest on lawyers’ trust accounts projects.
“Randy helped start the first one in the U.S.,” Trevisani said. Following Berg’s establishment of the first lawyers’ trust account initiative in Florida, identical projects eventually took root in every state in the country. Trevisani noted the interest from these trust accounts have generated billions of dollars over the years for indigent clients seeking legal representation.
“That’s one thing I think he was particularly proud of,” Trevisani said.
Considering the scope of Berg’s work, Trevisani said the Florida Justice Institute co-founder’s legacy is hard to summarize.
“I think his legacy is you can have a tremendous impact doing this type of legal work to very vulnerable people who need it, whether that’s people in prison, people in jail, people who don’t have a place to live because of housing discrimination, or people with disabilities,” he said, before adding Berg was ”a wonderful, wonderful person to work for.”
“He was a dear friend. I’m incredibly lucky to have gotten to work for him,” Trevisani said.
Reid echoed Trevisani’s sentiment, remarking Berg “made a tremendous impact on society through the Florida Justice Institute.”
“He was been able to attract very good lawyers who have a real heart for this,” Reid said. “You just can’t say enough about the guy.”
The Florida Justice Institute announced Berg’s death with an email carrying the subject line, “Our Dear Friend Randy.”
Berg was named as the Daily Business Review’s Most Effective Public Interest Lawyer several times, including 2011, 2016, 2017 and 2018. He is survived by his wife Carol and son Randall. Memorial services had not been arranged by press time.