A trial lawyer for mctlaw in its Sarasota office, Michele Stephan grew up in Southwest Florida, attended the University of South Florida and Stetson Law, and loves living and working here. “It’s rewarding to practice law in Sarasota,” she says. “It’s a smaller legal community and there is great collegiality and professionalism.”
In addition to her work at mctlaw, Stephan also serves as a volunteer judge for Teen Court of Sarasota County and teaches a pro se divorce clinic for Legal Aid of Manasota. She has served as a board member of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast, and the Friends of the Selby Public Library and hosted a legal clinic at Resurrection House.
We asked her about how she discovered Legal Aid of Manasota, her most rewarding experiences as an attorney, and what she wishes other lawyers understood about pro bono.
How did you discover Legal Aid of Manasota?
“I was a public service fellow at Stetson Law School, where I had exposure to legal aid lawyers and the good they do for low-income people. Going into the community and doing public service was rewarding. It was natural for me to volunteer time at Legal Aid of Manasota and if feels good to help others through the judicial system.
What is your role at Legal Aid?
“I help LAMS by teaching their divorce clinic, helping pro se litigants fill out the Supreme Court of Florida Dissolution of Marriage Forms. Also, in my role as chair of the Access to Justice Task Force for the Sarasota Bar, I work alongside the 12th Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee and Legal Aid of Manasota to promote pro bono service and provide opportunities for lawyers to do pro bono. Recently, we created a 12-person challenge to recruit pro bono attorneys to help teach divorce clinics and recruited 19 lawyers to give legal advice at the Disaster Recovery Center in North Port.
What are some of the challenges of pro bono work?
“The major challenge is recruiting lawyers to volunteer their time to do pro bono work. We know that lawyers hesitate to do pro bono service because of time commitments or they think they don’t have the skills that are needed. The truth is that any lawyer, regardless of practice area, is qualified to help low-income people navigate the judicial system. Legal Aid of Manasota has clinics and programs that request only a few hours of time, a couple times a year and they will train you to help. For instance, I’ve recently taken a training to help transgender youth fill out the paperwork for a name change. I was able to meet with someone for about an hour and guide them through what they needed to do. The best part was that the pro se litigant was very appreciative for the assistance and I left the zoom meeting feeling good about being a lawyer. It doesn’t take a special skill set or a lot of time to help. Signing up and showing are all that really matter.”
What are some memorable experiences that illuminate how a pro bono attorney can help people in need?
“For several years, I hosted a clinic at Resurrection House for the homeless. My main task was to help people obtain their birth certificates so that would have the documentation necessary to get an ID or driver’s license. I have run into several people Wal-mart and Publix that are now working and self sufficient because they were able to get their ID and start working. I also helped people navigate their Social Security Disability applications by reading the follow up letters and helping them understand what was requested and helping them write responses or referring them to a Social Security Disability lawyer.”
Another example I can share is that of an elderly homeless woman who brought probate papers into Resurrection House. It turned out that she had a sizeable trust and the trustees were simply not administering it in her best interest. With the help of Jeanne Bennett at O’Brien & Bennett, this lady is now in stable housing with the service she needs to be safe and secure.
What do you want attorneys to understand about pro bono work?
“There is a lot of injustice done because people don’t know how to get through the system and they don’t have the money to pay an attorney. By donating your time and expertise to help someone through the system, you are able to change people’s lives for the better, which, I think, is a great reward.”