An interview with Volunteer Lawyers Program pro bono attorney Mark Wolfson, partner and litigation lawyer at Foley & Lardner LLP.
Is this something that you’ve always thought that you wanted to do?
I’ve been doing pro bono work for quite a while, but as I got older and more seasoned as a lawyer and obviously further along in my career, I thought that I really needed to give back to my local community, and help those less fortunate to resolve problems that they were facing in the complex legal world. Because I’d already built my practice up significantly and I had more time to contribute to the pro bono services, I started taking on more cases. It was probably six or seven years ago that I fell into this area.
I don’t know if it was Jena or somebody else at Bay Area Legal Services that suggested maybe there’s a great need in guardianship advocacy area or guardianship law, which dealt with families who had children or young adults who were developmentally disabled. I thought of it more on a human level, where you’re helping people in really great need of legal advice. So I took on a case or two and then after that, I kind of developed a semi-expertise in it. After I put in some time, I thought I could really help these families out that were in need. I also love meeting these young adults with developmental disabilities. That probably rises from my dad, who was a pediatrician. You kind of emulate your parents and if your parents are giving you their communities, then that kind of has an impact on you, so that’s probably where it comes from.
Was there a specific guardianship case that stood out to you as making an impact on you?
There was a case I came across when I was doing an intake at Bay Area Legal and normally, lawyers just help for intake and then somebody else takes the case, but I thought this case had some merit and I thought I could figure out a solution, so I volunteered to accept the case. Two people had a child and they were not married, but there was a custody decree to provide life insurance for the benefit of the child. The father then subsequently passed away and his estate was opened up. The insurance that was required to protect the life insurance was not there, but we were able to arrange a negotiation with the estate. Of the extra money that should have been there, we got back about over 90 percent, and that created a fund that allowed this girl to be able to get braces, for example, which she’d never been able to have. She was able to go to a private school, where she got scholarship money, but the mother was able to pay part of the tuition to give this kid a chance to have a different life than she would have otherwise had. She’s probably on a different path than her life would have ever taken her.
I’m pretty active with my non-billable time because I think it’s important to give back to the community. The idea of helping other people and having an impact on other people’s lives is important to me and that’s what continues to drive me to do these cases.
It seems like you take on a lot of cases. What would you say to other attorneys who haven’t had the time or opportunity to take on a pro bono case?
A couple of things. One is it that it’s the right thing to do because we (attorneys) had the ability to go law school to be able to have a career that gives us special knowledge and skills that enable us to help corporations, but also to help people. In the end, when you face your career and look back, how do you want to be remembered in your own mind, in your family’s mind, or by your peers, or in the community? Is anybody going to know or care that you made a million-dollar deal, etc.?
The other thing is, it’s part of our oath as lawyers. I’m a commercial bankruptcy litigator and I’m doing guardianship cases. Lawyers are smart and can learn new skills. As the chair of the pro-bono effort in my office, I’ve been able to get corporate lawyers to do not-for-profit work for people that otherwise wouldn’t have the resources to hire a lawyer. It should make you feel good about your work, but it’s also expected of us as lawyers. It also then helps the reputation of lawyers in our community and in the public eye that it’s not just about making the last buck. Particularly for young lawyers, it’s a way for you to gain more confidence and learn different skillsets under guidance. The bottom line is that it doesn’t take that much time unless you choose to do a lot more.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The effort for pro-bono is not just about the law, it’s about helping people in your greater community, so that probably takes the cake. Not only did the Tampa legal community recognize that I was making contributions, so I was very proud of the award I got from Bay Area Legal, but my law firm recently recognized my pro-bono work, too. I was so very pleased to be able to donate the honorary gift that they gave me to Bay Area Legal Services.
Why did you decide to donate your award money to Bay Area Legal?
If you’re passionate about something, you have to support it. Also, [Bay Area Legal is] an organization that never has enough. So, because I had that extra gift from my firm, I thought that most of the funds should go to an organization that can really impact the lives of those in my own local community. My family has been in Tampa for over 100 years. My great-grandparents came here in 1914 or 1915, so I feel grateful to give back to my community where my family’s been for a long time.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, I’d like to add that a lawyer’s assistant is an essential part of the pro bono team, and my assistant Christy Rowell, has been instrumental in communicating with the clients, processing paperwork, and getting me prepared for hearings and client meetings. A lawyer hopefully has an assistant that appreciates the pro bono mission and that makes the process more effective.