Eugene Pettis
Eugene Pettis (Melanie Bell)

A coalition of Florida legal aid organizations and supporters filed a petition Monday with the Florida Supreme Court asking to raise the cap on Florida Bar dues by $100 to fund legal aid programs.

The group called Access for Justice wants Bar dues raised from $265 to $365 annually for Florida’s nearly 100,000 lawyers. The increase would generate an additional $10 million a year for legal aid services statewide.

The group, which includes former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, said the funds are desperately needed since legal aid programs rely on interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, and interest rates have tanked. Funding in Florida dropped 89 percent to $5 million last year from $44 million in 2007.

However, backers have a powerful opponent: the Florida Bar. The Bar board of governors already voted down the proposal, and Florida Bar president Eugene Pettis led a conference call explaining its opposition.

Lawyers contributed $4.8 million and 1.7 million pro bono hours to indigent clients last year. Rather than taxing lawyers further, he said the burden of providing and paying for legal assistance for the poor should be shared among the business community and all stakeholders—something that occurs in other states.

“We need to do something greater than just putting money into a system,” Pettis said. “We have to do something that looks into the platform of delivery. We have to come up with a model that will have a greater reach and touch all indigent individuals and a greater percentage of working-class Americans.”

Pettis is organizing a summit in late summer to address the issue and is offering a $6 million bridge loan to tide over legal aid agencies temporarily.

“I don’t think putting $10 million in this year or next year will solve the problem,” he added.

‘Not Significant’

But others feel differently and think lawyers should step up to help the indigent with legal assistance.

Thirteen pages of the 27-page petition were filled with the names of supportive attorneys. A total of 522 lawyers signed, including several former Florida Bar presidents and Florida Supreme Court justices.

Lilly Ann Sanchez of the LS Law Firm in Miami was among them. Sanchez, who serves on the campaign fund for Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc., called $100 “not such a significant amount of money per year to assist in helping the poor community with the legal services they need.”

“The lawyers in the state of Florida, and there are many of us, should be able to afford the $100,” she said. “I understand that all levels of lawyers and some younger lawyers have law school loans and other things that could make it a burden, but I do think the majority of lawyers in Florida and major law firms can afford this. When you divide it, it comes to a quarter a day.”

Sanchez noted major law firms pay Bar dues for their lawyers, so they would clearly be hit the hardest.

But Byrd “Biff” Marshall, president and managing director at GrayRobinson, said he would have no problem paying the $30,000 a year it would cost him to cover the increase for his 300 attorneys.

“We would be willing to do that,” he said. “That’s not significant.”

The petition also was signed by Thomas Julin, a partner at Hunton & Williams in Miami.

Julin, who said he was recruited to help raise funds for Legal Services of Greater Miami in 2009, said he thinks the dues hike would be fair.

“Bar dues haven’t been increased in a long time, and lawyers are generally making good money,” he said.

Julin said he felt the signature count was probably a good indication of widespread support since the petition required scanning and signing a document “and took some time to complete.”

Other prominent signers included Craig Rasile, managing partner of DLA Piper in Miami; Terry Russell, a former Florida Bar president and partner at Holland & Knight in Jacksonville; Robert Josefsberg, a partner at Podhurst Orseck in Miami; Michael Mullen, president of the Miami chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates and managing partner at Gaebe Mullen Antonelli & Dimatteo in Coral Gables; and Parker Thomson, of counsel at Hogan Lovells in Miami.

The petitioners asked for expedited review, which would offer 30 days for responses. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments.

The court could raise the dues cap as much as it wants or deny the petition, said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami, one of the petition organizers.