Andrew M. Smulian (J. Albert Diaz)
Akerman attorneys have for years contributed in various ways to the community, but this year the Miami-based law firm with more than 600 lawyers and lobbyists took the extraordinary step of organizing a guardian ad litem pro bono effort across its network of 20 U.S. offices.
This involved, in part, a one-week training program in May. It was timed to coincide with National Foster Care Month and was done in cooperation with the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, or CASA. The association promotes volunteer advocacy for abused children in foster care.
Akerman chairman and chief executive officer Andrew Smulian discussed this project with the Daily Business Review.
What was the genesis of the project?
There’s been involvement by a number of our lawyers over the years. Karen Buesing, for one. A partner in our Tampa office, she was honored earlier this year with Florida’s highest distinction for pro bono service—The Florida Bar’s Tobia Simon Pro Bono Service Award, for her commitment to assist homeless youth.
Richard Milstein, a partner in our Miami office, is another. He has served as a child advocated and guardian ad litem for more than 30 years.
And how did that evolve into this project?
This is beyond pro bono. It’s really an overall give back to the community, with lawyers and staff throughout the firm participating. We were looking for something we could all get behind in terms of philanthropic involvement.
We had so much interest and support in unifying behind education and youth development. We were reading these tragic stories of children in foster care. These trends came together and caused us to focus.
Why partner with CASA?
CASA is an ideal partner. They have programs all over the country. We were able to partner with all of our offices making contributions through CASA and their affiliates.
What was your impression of the May training effort?
I was absolutely delighted with this. Our lawyers and staff collectively pledged over 14,000 hours and raised more then $100,000. This will have an impact program-wide on 200 foster children in the coming year. One hundred fifteen lawyers pledged to serve as a guardians ad litem for the next year. There were also pledges of clothing and books and other kinds of donations.”
What is involved in that kind of commitment for attorneys and staff?
There is the 30 hours of initial training. They will appear in court hearings on behalf of the child. The one year, that is a minimum. It can last beyond that.
In certain cases, really, there’s an absence of a parent. The guardian ad litem effectively is the parent. This varies by jurisdiction, but in many cases the guardian ad litem is the only adult figure in the child’s life.
This 14,000-hour pledge, what else does it involve?
People volunteer for hours if they didn’t feel they could make the full commitment to being a guardian ad litem. CASA needs volunteer hours in other ways. There are pledges to work with guardian ad litem offices in staff functions to help them keep running.