“The Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association (LAS/OCBA) has an incredibly unique identity. Our story is unlike any other LAS in the country; we are one of a kind,” says executive director and attorney Bethanie Barber with understandable pride.
“As a private nonprofit legal aid society, we are not tied to any government entity, so it’s our decision to determine how we spend our funds. We have the freedom and flexibility to serve those in our community who truly need it the most, without outside direction or restriction.”
LAS has been waging a fight in the local war against poverty since it formed in 1961, established by OCBA members with the responsibility to provide access to quality legal services for all.
The important distinction that separates LAS from other legal aid groups is its mandatory requirement that every attorney, judge and legal professional who joins the voluntary OCBA must give LAS some level of pro bono involvement in the community through time, skill or financial support.
“This obligation is pure magic,” Barber said. “No other bar association in the nation makes that level of commitment. We are so proud of this relationship.”
According to Barber, the LAS role focuses on society’s most pressing problems, which are all intertwined. “We provide legal solutions to social problems,” she explained. “We can’t ignore that social service element of our work. We can’t remove the harmful nature of domestic violence from the discussion; or ignore the mental health needs of abused, abandoned and neglected children; or leave the discussion of substance drug abuse out of family law conversations.”
She stressed that LAS attorneys must always be mindful of and understand these trends to be their most effective. They must listen, be holistic and — if necessary — work with a community service for additional means of support.
“It’s rare for us to see only one issue; it’s never that simple,” Barber said. “We once helped a survivor of domestic violence who was fearful for her and her children’s lives. This wasn’t just a domestic violence injunction and a divorce — we also uncovered issues regarding her immigration status. One legal problem turned into many, which in turn had a tremendous generational impact. We also served her three children and changed the lives of this family forever.”
LAS currently has two distinct areas that require significant resources.
Historically, family law was the area of greatest need — until mid-2020, when LAS witnessed a never-before-seen shift to predominantly housing-related needs. Reasons included the effects of COVID-19 on the economy in central Florida.
“When the pandemic affected our dominant services industry here, we had voluminous rates of evictions and foreclosures, and housing assistance became the greatest area of need,” Barber said. “Since then, housing and family law continue to leapfrog each other for the number one and two spots.”
The LAS budget starts at zero every January, and “we have to work hard throughout the year to independently source and secure each dollar,” Barber said. “We are in love with our vibrant and ever-growing community, but it takes quite a bit to support residents who live at or below poverty; are vulnerable, such as the elderly, medically needy or veterans; or are suffering in a complicated housing market. To keep helping them, we need more money; it’s always our greatest challenge.”
Barber is grateful for repeat supporters like the Florida Bar Foundation and Orange County government. “These long-standing entities have an awareness of the needs of central Florida, as well as the transformative nature of civil legal aid organizations. We are constantly searching for other organizations and businesses that can choose to provide financial support. Central Florida has such diversity in its economy, and we are optimistic that our local business community understands the benefits that civil legal aid has for its employees and the individuals who support those businesses.”
The Future of LAS
Barber identified several immediate needs for LAS as community growth outpaces its current space and abilities.
“To serve every member in the community who needs it, we have to be able to go on the road,” she said. “Public transportation is not easy in central Florida for many of our most vulnerable clients. We are in pursuit of a mobile unit so we can get out into the community, which will let us make an even bigger difference.”
The LAS has also launched a campaign to upgrade its physical building, which it has completely outgrown since being built in 1948. “We have nearly 50 people working closely together in an area that was originally built for 20,” Barber said. “Our space has to reflect and better meet the needs of our clients and our staff.”
Another LAS priority is expanding collective statewide advocacy among legal aid groups and private law firms to tackle large-scale issues through collaborative action, because “we all can do better.”
Barber unexpectedly witnessed first-hand the magnitude of LAS’s past, present and future effects during a recent walk outdoors.
“I recognized a former child we had served,” Barber recalled. “She had been abused and neglected, she couldn’t communicate and was mistrustful, and she had extensive education and medical needs. We fought hard for her, showed her respect, and demonstrated to her that she was worthy. After she transitioned out of the foster system, she became a nanny in a foreign country and experienced life abroad. When she returned, she attended and graduated from college. I saw her out walking with a significant other, wearing a wedding band, and she looked so happy! She is a contributing member of society, gainfully employed, with a support system and living a treasured life.
“This is why we do what we do, and why I am so proud of our work,” Barber continued. “This will keep me going for the next 30 years!”