Traditionally, the last week of October is the annual National Celebration of Pro Bono; this year’s celebration runs from Oct. 25-31. However, in honor of Legal Aid of Manasota’s amazing pro bono team, we’re celebrating all month!

Each week this month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with one of our pro bono attorneys or volunteers. They’ll share a little bit about their lives, their interests and why their work with Legal Aid of Manasota is so important to them.

We’re kicking off this series with Neil Lyons, an elder law attorney with Luhrsen | Goldberg and the chair of the new Sarasota County Bar Association Access to Justice committee. Neil was also The Florida Bar’s 12th Judicial Circuit’s Pro Bono Service Award winner in 2019.

“In our local elder law community, providing pro bono services is not just encouraged, it’s expected,” Neil says. “I’m also fortunate to work for two amazing women, Julie Luhrsen and Christina Goldberg, who are major contributors to my being able to devote time to representing indigent clients.”

Tell us about your background. 

“I was born in San Diego, but my family moved around a lot when I was younger.  My father was in the United States Navy and we moved from San Diego to Rhode Island, then back to San Diego, then to Virginia, and then back to San Diego again. We finally settled in Sarasota in 1995, when my father retired after 25 years of service to our country.

“I attended Cardinal Mooney High School and received my undergraduate degree in 2005 and graduate degree in 2008, both from the University of South Florida. I attended Stetson University College of Law where I received my Juris Doctor in 2011.”

Neil’s sons, Dylan and Luke, and puppy Winston

What made you want to become a lawyer?

“I became an attorney for the simple reason that I wanted to provide financial support for my family.  I wish my reasoning for becoming an attorney was more fantastical, but it’s pretty simple. Speaking of my family, I’ve been married to my wife Mary for 12 years; she’s a nurse practitioner. We have two boys, Luke (8) and Dylan (3), and a miniature Australian Shepherd named Winston.”

What made you decide to volunteer as a pro bono lawyer for Legal Aid of Manasota?

“It’s not really a decision so much as a driving force.  I can only describe it as a feeling of going bed at night and not being comfortable sleeping unless you’ve made that phone call to Legal Aid and inquired as to whether there are clients who are in need of help.  It’s a feeling that simply doesn’t go away.  It’s quite hard to explain, because it goes against the concept of making as much money as humanly possible.  I’ve worked in firms where the billable hour is revered as a golden calf, and the idea of attorneys volunteering for pro bono work, when those attorneys could be billing, is completely foreign.

“Indeed, if you are volunteering to take on pro bono cases, that is time that you are not earning money for yourself or for your firm. Thus, the drive to take pro bono cases is an absolutely contradictory concept in our society where monetary gain is the objective measure of success. The only way to describe why someone would want to volunteer to be a pro bono attorney is that there is a driving force to provide what little help you can, and that simply doesn’t go away.

“It’s also not just me volunteering.  Multiple people contribute significantly to the effort. For example, it would be quite impossible for me to do so if it wasn’t for my managing partners, Julie Luhrsen and Christina Goldberg, providing me with a significant portion of the tools necessary to volunteer. My wife Mary also makes it possible for me to volunteer.  She’s a nurse practitioner who works full time and if it wasn’t for the time she puts in at home, even after working a full day, I wouldn’t be able to provide volunteer legal services.”

What has the experience of volunteering for Legal Aid of Manasota been like? Has there been a moment or client experience that has particularly touched you?

“Nearly all of my experiences as a volunteer attorney have been exciting and rewarding, even cases where the issues seem to be needlessly complicated are learning opportunities. As a volunteer attorney, you learn a lot about yourself.”

Why is Legal Aid of Manasota important to our community?

“There are few organizations that are dedicated to obtaining access to justice in civil matters. In criminal matters, the alleged offender is entitled to legal representation as dictated by U.S. and State constitutions and Supreme Court precedent. No such entitlement exists in civil matters, for numerous reasons. For many indigent clients, simply having an attorney on their side can significantly change the outcome of their case and their lives.  Legal Aid of Manasota is dedicated to providing civil indigent clients with access to justice that many so desperately need.”

What do you wish people understood about the justice system and legal aid? If you could, how would you make justice work for everyone?

“I wish people understood that the typical stereotype of greedy attorneys acting only for monetary interest is not true. I wish public at large knew that there was a small but very dedicated portion of the legal community who are willing to volunteer their time to representing indigent clients.”

What is one thing people might not know about you?

“I was a stay-at-home father to my son Luke for two years from 2012 to 2014. It wasn’t easy to obtain a legal job at that time, and while I was on the job hunt for those two years, I was fortunate enough to be able to stay at home. To this day, its still one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my life. Of course, it would never have been possible without my wife, who worked and financially supported our family the entire time. When Luke was born, she was only able to stay at home with him for three weeks because maternity leave wasn’t available at her job. In reality, any award I receive for pro bono work I’ve done should be given to her as well, because I wouldn’t be able to do it without her. She’s such a strong and loving person. I tell her that she’s Ellen Ripley, the heroine of so many of us raised in the ’80s.”

What are your hobbies?

“A passion project I picked up during COVID-19 quarantine is working in the yard. My father died from a heart attack working in the yard 10 years ago, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Alas, I now find myself in the blazing hot Florida sun doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. It’s never ending, because I’m never happy with the work I’ve done! I often find myself redoing sections that I’ve completed because I’m not satisfied with the final product.

“One of my longest running hobbies is reading all things military history, especially the 1916 offensive battles on the Western front (Verdun, the Somme) during World War I, and the Eastern Front theater in World War II.

“I also enjoy spending time with my boys. I’m a big movie fan and used to enjoy going to Cinebistro (I know, first world privilege) with my wife, but now we have to find a new favorite date night spot. Finally, another hobby of mine is listening to extreme metal music (death metal, black metal, multiple extreme metal fusion genres, etc.)”