Law firm's free help deserves a hurrah

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published July 30, 2005

A lot of bad things have been written lately about Holland & Knight, one of the nation's biggest lawfirms. You might say the firm got what it deserved when newspapers disclosed its clumsy handling of a sexual harassment problem.

But there are also some good things to talk about around Holland & Knight.

This Holland & Knight story begins in a Hyde Park bar in Tampa on a night in late 1989.

Steve Hanlon, the lawyer telling the story, was at home fast asleep one night about 11 when a few politically active lawyers called him and urged him to join them for a late-night conversation.

"I said it's late at night, and I'm married to a very traditional Italian woman," Hanlon recalled recently."They said it was important."

So Hanlon got up, dressed and joined Holland & Knightlawyer Steve Powell and a few others in the bar. The others had just come from a Democratic Party meeting and wanted Hanlon to run against U.S. Rep. SamGibbons, a Tampa Democrat.

Hanlon had no interest in running for office, but he told Powell and the others he really would be interested in heading up a pro bono section at Holland & Knight if the firm would be willing to create it.

Thirty days later, Hanlon was running the firm's community services team. Today Hanlon is based inWashington, and the pro bono section is the largest in the country. Hanlon and five other very good lawyers are full-time do-gooders, and other lawyers in the firm are asked to contribute at least 50 hours a year.

With 1,200 lawyers in the firm, that adds up to 60,000 hours of free legal help to people and causes in need.That's a lot of hours in a land where the Florida Bar urges its members to donate a measly 20 hours a year.

The full-time lawyers include George Kendall, a death penalty expert in the New York office; RobinRosenberg, who supervises the firm's Florida work from his office in St. Petersburg; Chris Nugent, an immigration specialist in Washington; Buddy Schulz, an experienced trial lawyer in Jacksonville; and Bob Feagin, a former managing partner who works out ofTallahassee.

A sample of their work was outlined last week at a reception in Tallahassee, where some of the lawyers who have donated their time and energy gathered to talk about their cases and causes.

Katy Parker, a commercial litigator, racked up the most hours donated to free cases for her defense of aBlackshear, Ga., newspaper publisher who was being sued for libel by local land developers who obtained a gag order to keep the newspaper from publishing anything about the lawsuit. Parker spent more than 235hours on the case, which earned the law firm a huge thank-you in the tiny Georgia newspaper.

Sara Butters, another Tallahassee lawyer, spent more than 200 hours representing an inmate sentenced to life in prison for a rape, robbery and kidnapping in1984. Eddie Williams spent more than 110 hours helping a man get his child support modified. Susan Kelseyspent more than 100 hours handling appeals for other pro bono cases. Kelsey's husband, Mark Holcomb, spent more than 80 hours helping Healthy Start children.

Others in the firm joined to help an entire village in Guatemala fight the forced condemnation of their land by a dam construction company. Some helped residents gain more handicapped accessibility in a small NorthFlorida town, while others helped children who need guardians, the Girl Scouts mentoring program and a student expelled from school.

All of the lawyers who volunteer their time in addition to their regular case load get internal credit for the billable hours they spend helping others.

Many of their cases come from citizens who go to legalaid offices seeking help. Hanlon says he has a two-pronged test: If it seems wonderful and impossible, it's likely to be accepted.

"We are dealing with a serious culture of greed in our profession," Hanlon admits.

It's the kind of program you wish all law firms would establish.

Funny how one firm can give us the best and worst of what can happen when lawyers gather under one roof.