Attorney at Law Magazine Jacksonville Publisher Tom Brady sat down with Kathy Para to discuss the rewards and challenges of being an attorney.
AALM: What was the greatest lesson you learned in law school?
Para: I credit law school with several lessons and self-realizations that continue to serve me well. These lessons included learning that I’m not the smartest, but that I’m smart enough; don’t get behind on your reading; try to think independently, the majority isn’t always right; and, question everything when examining the facts and procedures, don’t assume.
AALM: What experiences have taught you the most?
Para: In my early work life I helped start an aft erschool remedial reading program and morning preschool in an inner-city neighborhood. This shaped my view of poverty, my ability to consider alternatives, and the importance of simply listening and being present. I saw that a person doesn’t have to have a lot to give a lot. It was oft en unclear which of us were the givers and which were the receivers.
AALM: What first drew you to your firm? Tell us about your role there.
Para: I am a third career attorney. I’ve been fortunate to have had some fulfilling opportunities in my work life. When I graduated from law school, I worked as a contract attorney with JEA doing Department of Energy reporting, drafting requests for proposals, and public bid evaluations. At the same time, I served as a pro bono attorney for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA). My pro bono involvement was the work that was the most satisfying to me and that fit with my reasons for going to law school. When the opportunity to work at JALA to help expand its capacity to serve the poor with pro bono involvement was offered, I jumped on it. My job as the director of pro bono is very broad and I work to coordinate outreach events, provide resources to pro bono attorneys, and support the pro bono efforts of voluntary bar associations and law firms.
AALM: What do you find particularly rewarding about being an attorney?
Para: It’s my job to be a conduit connecting willing volunteers to low-income persons in need of civil legal assistance. I oft en tell people that I have the best seat in the house. In my work, I see attorneys stepping up every day to assist with an outreach event, represent a person who otherwise would have no voice in court, or to support another pro bono attorney. These volunteers have a generosity of spirit that is humbling and inspiring and in response, the vast majority of the clients they are serving are deeply grateful. Pro bono attorneys change lives and stabilize families and I am privileged to be part of that.
AALM: What do you find particularly challenging about your practice?
Para: Legal services organizations are faced with drastically underfunded programs. They are able to serve about 20 percent of the eligible people who seek their services. Funding for legal services, to be sustainable, has to come from a broad base of stakeholders. When city governments, private corporations and bar associations don’t do their part, it means that access to justice is only available to those who can pay. It means that only one side of a legal issue is heard which is an unacceptable injustice. It erodes the principles on which our judicial system and our country are founded – liberty and justice for all.
AALM: How would you describe the culture of the JALA?
Para: JALA is a large, nonprofit law firm. We have about 25 staff attorneys and an equal number of support staff . We have offices in Jacksonville, Green Cove Springs and in St. Augustine, but we serve a 17-county region along with our sister legal services organization, Three Rivers Legal Services. JALA has a long and rich history of service to the poor in northeast Florida. I am surrounded by creative, courageous advocates and truly am honored to be part of this organization.
AALM: Are there any changes coming in the future that you’re excited about?
Para: Presently, I serve as president of the Florida Pro Bono Coordinators Association. This year the association is expanding its membership to include pro bono coordinators from law firms, law schools and other organizations. I am also very excited about the creation of the Access to Justice Commission of Chief Justice LaBarga. The representatives and subcommittees of the commission are addressing the need for greater access to our courts for all people. Although the challenge is great, meaningful change will happen when we communicate, pool resources, and address the lack of access on the state level.
AALM: Are there any flaws in the legal profession that you see? If so, how would you fix them?
Para: Legal representation is unaffordable for large segments of our population. Could you afford to hire an attorney? I’m pretty sure I could not. As a profession, we have to address access from many different angles while protecting the public from the unlicensed practice of law. We can learn from other states that provide more opportunities for limited representation and guidance for prose litigants. The goals are always to serve the litigant well, to provide mechanisms to relieve overcrowded court dockets, and to ensure that more people with meritorious matters get their day in court.
There are so many ways to provide pro bono legal service. Attorneys can present at Ask-A-Lawyer, Lawyers in Libraries and at group information clinics. They can serve as an expert resource attorney for another pro bono attorney. They can assist a low-income person with a legal matter. Pro bono assistance is a great way to develop as a professional, network with other attorneys, and serve your community. Get involved!