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 program, known as the Legal Aid Society, then Legal Aid, and now Dade Legal Aid, 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.” Mr. Gray recommended that the new Legal Aid Society Committee prepare a proposed budget and present it to the Dade Community Chest so that a sufficient fund to hire an attorney and pay a reasonable salary could be established.
In 1942, at its General Membership Luncheon meeting, DCBA members were asked to “support the community chest in every manner possible, particularly in view of the fact that the Community Chest was adding the Legal Aid Committee to its list of dependents.” By 1943, DCBA Legal Aid Committee “Legal Aid,” was affiliated with the Dade County Community Chest, had an annual budget of $1,200 and handled over 2,000 cases annually. Legal Aid was providing legal advice in areas including domestic relations, returning veterans’ needs, and landlord/tenant matters. In 1943 – 1944, Legal Aid expanded the priorities for the Legal Aid Office to include: Financial (Small Claims, Wage Payment, Wage Claims), Domestic (Family Cases Involving Children, Custody Disputes, Paternities, Child Support and Alimony), and Guardianship (Children that are Able to Care for their Aging, Indigent Parents). By 1949, Legal Aid had handled thousands of cases, providing a critical safety net of civil legal services to those in need, and the association decided it was time to secure funding to hire a full-time attorney.
In 1949, the county’s first full-time Legal Aid Society was chartered and Robert M. Haverfield was appointed to serve as Legal Aid’s first full-time staff attorney. In 1950, the Society’s budget was $15,000 and although the Bar did not have its own offices, in 1951 they provided financial support for a downtown office for the Legal Aid attorney, receptionist, and office equipment. At that time, and with full support by the Bar, Dade County established a full-time paid operation by Special Act of the Legislature providing funding for Legal Aid from the filing fee for every case filed in any lawsuit in any Court of Record in Dade County Circuit Court. From 1952 – 1971, Quentin T. Eldred served as Staff Attorney of the Dade County Legal Aid Society and fought for increased access to Legal Aid for the indigent. The number of cases doubled during that period and Legal Aid was instrumental in collecting $87,000 in child support for clients under Eldred. In 1954, the Legal Aid Society handled 3,247 clients and it became necessary to hire an Assistant Legal Aid Attorney with additional support from Dade 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. 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 formal Pro Bono Plan and both offices, Pro Bono and Legal Aid, comprised the DCBA Office of Public Service. In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court adopted the first IOTA Program in the country. In 1982, the agency received its first Florida Bar Foundation grant to provide greater access to justice and has been supported by the foundation for the past 40 years. The IOTA Program, combined with the generosity and support of many members of the bar, has given Dade Legal Aid the opportunity to make positive changes in countless lives unable to afford an attorney. In 1986, Redstone was succeeded by Sharon Langer, who served from 1986 – 2014 as executive director of DCBA Legal Aid and the Office of Public Service. Langer, a true visionary and leader, adopted and expanded the bar’s pro bono policy as the needs of the poverty community increased, establishing invaluable and long-lasting partnerships with the Courts, agencies, firms, Florida Bar Foundation, 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, “Put Something Back,” a pro bono initiative between the Courts and Legal Aid funded by a generous grant from the Court. Since its creation, Put Something Back has recruited over 7,500 pro bono attorneys, 250 law firms, law schools, stakeholders, supporters and dozens of voluntary bar associations.
Legal Aid has been a highly respected institution for the provision of free legal services for over 80 years focusing on Family Law, Guardianship, Consumer, Housing, Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy. Legal Aid has been located in the DCBA building since it opened in 1962 and has had office space on all five floors. 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. Under Langer’s leadership, Legal Aid expanded at one point to 23 staff attorneys, 7,000+ pro bono attorneys, and over 250+ firms to handle a variety of civil matters for the enormous indigent population. Annually, the agency serves 1,000’s of clients via staff and pro bono attorneys.
While initially known as the Legal Aid Society, various names have been used over the years: The Legal Aid Committee of the DCBA, The Legal Aid Committee, Dade County Legal Aid Society, DCBA Legal Aid Society, Legal Aid Society, Legal Aid and Dade Legal Aid. DCBA’s unwavering support of Legal Aid has been ongoing for decades, and to date, DCBA continues to support Legal Aid and its Put Something Back 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.” Over the decades, the Bar has held campaigns to ensure strong financial support and backing for Legal Aid, filling any gaps in funding, has recruited lawyers to volunteer services, and has helped to expand Legal Aid through initiatives such as the Public Interest Law Bank, Volunteer Lawyers Project which merged into the Put Something Back Pro Bono Project of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, 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 The Leadership Academy. It is estimated that members of the Bar have provided millions of hours of pro bono services and continuously assist and support Legal Aid to face the growing challenges. Legal Aid is grateful for the leadership and guidance of the association and its presidents over the past century.
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 2020, Legal Aid served over 5,000 individuals positively impacting over 10,000 residents and saving countless lives. There are nearly 1,000 ongoing Guardianship cases, 950 family clients, 750 domestic violence clients, 500 bankruptcy, foreclosure and eviction cases and 475 child advocacy cases. 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 to Legal Aid by accepting cases from Put Something Back or contributing $350 annually 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/