Legal Aid History in Brief: Legal Aid began in 1939 when a group of Dade County Bar Association attorneys established a committee to provide legal services to those who could not otherwise afford them. Understanding early on the need for legal assistance for the community’s impoverished residents, the Bar organized the Legal Aid Committee to assist those in dire need of access to justice with nowhere else to turn. Then DCBA President W.L. Gray, Jr. commented in his 1940 – 1941 Annual Report that “the Legal Aid Committee was the hardest assignment of all bar committees.“ He reported that “the committee was not endowed and had no funds but had efficiently handled all of the meritorious claims coming to Legal Aid from the underprivileged.”
In 1949, Legal Aid Society was chartered and the county funded the first full time Legal Aid Attorney, Robert M. Haverfield, with a budget of $15,000. From 1952 – 1971, Quentin T. Eldred served as the next Staff Attorney Legal Aid and fought for increased access to Legal Aid for the indigent. The number of cases doubled and Legal Aid was instrumental in collecting $87,000 in child support for clients under Eldred. In 1954, Legal Aid handled 3,247 clients and it became necessary to hire an Assistant Legal Aid Attorney with additional funding from the County.
By 1958, the Society’s revenue reached almost $38,000, and later increased to $42,000 as a result of the passage of The Legal Aid Bill which increased revenue to the County for Legal Aid. Irene Redstone was hired to work on the increasing caseload, eventually succeeding Eldred upon his retirement in 1971, and later becoming Legal Aid Society’s first executive director. The need for Legal Aid intensified, and in 1981, the bar took pride in adopting its Office of Public Service. In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court adopted the first IOTA Program in the country.
In 1982, Legal Aid began to receive IOTA funding from the Florida Bar Foundation to provide greater access to justice and has been supported by the foundation for over 40 years. The IOTA Program, combined with the generosity and support of many attorneys and law firms in Miami-Dade County, including members of the DCBA and other voluntary bar associations, has given Miami-Dade Legal Aid the opportunity to make positive changes in the lives of countless residents unable to afford an attorney.
In 1986, Redstone was succeeded by Sharon Langer, who served from 1986 – 2014 as executive director of Dade Legal Aid, where she administered the Pro Bono Program known as Volunteer Lawyers and “Put Something Back,” under the Office of Public Service. Langer expanded the bar’s pro bono policy as the needs of the poverty community increased, established invaluable and long-lasting partnerships with the Courts, agencies, firms, the Florida Bar Foundation, other foundations, law schools and voluntary bar associations raising critical funds and support for the growing Legal Aid Society. “The demand for legal services has never been greater,” said Sharon Langer, “due to the continued economic challenges in Miami-Dade County.” In 1991, Langer hired Karen Josefsberg to serve as Pro Bono Coordinator to launch Dade County Comprehensive Pro Bono Project, which became known as “Put Something Back,” a pro bono initiative in conjunction with the Courts and funded by the Courts to provide greater access to justice for pro se litigants and the underrepresented unable to afford an attorney. Since its creation, and under the leadership of Langer and Ladis, Legal Aid’s Put Something Back program recruited over 7,500 pro bono attorneys, 250 law firms, law schools, stakeholders, supporters and dozens of voluntary bar associations.
While initially known as the Legal Aid Society, various names have been used over the years: The Legal Aid Committee of the DCBA, Dade County Legal Aid Society, DCBA Legal Aid, Legal Aid Society, Legal Aid and Dade Legal Aid/Put Something Back, the bar’s unwavering support of Legal Aid and its Pro Bono Programs has been ongoing for decades, and to date, DCBA continues to support Dade Legal Aid and its Put Something Back Pro Bono program. Like many outstanding Bar Presidents who served before and after him, in 2012, DCBA President Garrett Biondo called on all bar members to take a pro bono case or contribute $350 to Legal Aid annually, stating, “Dade Legal Aid is the shining star of our association and the program we are most proud of.”
The Bar Leadership has continuously supported Legal Aid efforts and campaigns to ensure strong financial support to fill gaps in funding for Legal Aid, assisting with recruitment efforts of pro bono lawyers, and promoting Legal Aid initiatives such as Put Something Back Pro Bono Project, The Give More Back Campaign, The Patently Impossible Project, The Legal Leaders Committee, The Venture Law Project, The Legal Aid Advisory Committee, Battle of the Legal Bands to Benefit Legal Aid and Dade Legal Aid Leadership Academy. It is estimated that pro bono attorneys have provided millions of hours of pro bono services through Put Something Back over the years. Legal Aid, a highly respected institution for the provision of free legal services for over 80 years, has several departments which include: Family Law, Guardianship, Consumer/Bankruptcy, Housing, Domestic Violence, Child Advocacy, Venture Law, and Put Something Back, which refers cases that the staff attorneys are unable to handle.
Legal Aid has been located in the DCBA building since it opened in 1962 and has had office space on all five floors. Over the decades, its mission to help indigent residents has remained – To Bring about Improvements to the Lives of Low-income Clients through Advocacy, Direct Representation, Education and Empowerment – and expanded from time to time to meet the emerging, immense needs of the poverty community, including victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, adult disabled individuals, children with special needs, victims of human sex trafficking, persons facing eviction and foreclosures, debtors facing collections and bankruptcy, immigrants, unaccompanied minor children, and victims of unprecedented disasters. Annually, the agency serves 1,000’s of clients via staff and pro bono attorneys and today there are currently 20 staff attorneys handling hundreds of cases.
In 2014, Karen Josefsberg Ladis became the agency’s third executive director following Langer’s retirement. Ladis continues to fulfill Legal Aid’s mission and has further grown and expanded the program advocating strenuously for increased Access to Justice for All using staff attorneys and pro bono resources through Put Something Back in collaboration with the Eleventh Judicial Circuit. In 2021, Legal Aid served over 5,000 individuals positively impacting over 10,000 residents and saving countless lives. Through its various departments, there are countless ongoing Guardianship, Family, Domestic Violence, Bankruptcy, Foreclosure, Eviction, Child Advocacy and Pro Bono Civil matters. Legal Aid’s advocacy is wide-ranging and benefits countless low-income communities across the county, including documented and undocumented individuals. Florida Bar members in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit are encouraged to donate their time and resources by accepting cases from Dade Legal Aid through its Put Something Back program or contributing $350 to Legal Aid in lieu of taking a case. In exchange, members receive outstanding free CLE training, materials and seasoned mentors, not to mention immense personal satisfaction by helping someone in need. Dade Legal Aid truly makes a difference in the lives of needy residents. https://www.dadelegalaid.org/psb-enrollment-form-attorneys/