Melanie Kalmanson, Your Turn
Published 6:00 a.m. ET Sept. 19, 2020

Growing up in the middle of a contentious divorce, I learned at an early age that legal issues can deeply impact one’s life. Because of this experience, I knew early on that I wanted to go to law school and use my education to help those who could not afford legal assistance.

Now, as a practicing lawyer, I fully appreciate the importance of each lawyer engaging in pro bono work to supplement the important work that legal aid and legal services organizations perform every day. Pro bono plays an important part in our justice system by helping to ensure that every person, regardless of race or economic circumstance, has equal access to the law. Just in Leon County, more than 2,300 low-income families need legal assistance each year.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee is a critical resource for those in need of legal services in our area. But LAF cannot meet the needs of the community without attorneys volunteering to provide pro bono services.

One of the primary reasons I hear from attorneys about why they don’t participate in pro bono, or more pro bono, is lack of experience, mainly in family law. Nationally, family law is one of the areas in which the need for pro bono assistance is the highest. More than 86% of LAF case requests are for family legal issues, but only about 40 attorneys in Leon County dedicate their practice to family law.

To attempt to close this gap, in 2014 leaders of our community and LAF created the Thunderdome program. Inspired by clinics in Chicago and Connecticut, Thunderdome gives attorneys hands-on training from experienced family law practitioners so they are equipped to handle pro bono family law cases. In addition, each Thunderdome participant agrees to take on an LAF case. Throughout the case, the participant is mentored by a local family law practitioner and has access to the network of Thunderdome alumni.

With the generous support of organizations in our community, Thunderdome continues today. Since 2014, Thunderdome has trained more than 80 attorneys. I was a part of the most recent Thunderdome class and, together, we volunteered more than 300 pro bono hours serving our LAF clients.

More: Thunderdome program training lawyers to help poor clients

More: Lawyer Dina Foster receives Thunderdome Award for work with families

Personally, with the assistance of my wonderful mentor Trudy Innes Richardson (a local family law attorney), I was able to help my client resolve a dissolution of marriage, which involved two children, without stepping foot in the courtroom.

LAF should be applauded for blazing the trail on how to bridge the gap between substantive knowledge and pro bono service. Leon County is fortunate to have LAF and a collaborative legal community that come together to support our community.

To learn more about how you can support LAF and the Thunderdome program, I invite you to join the Annual Thunderdome Tallahassee awards program, which will be held virtually starting at noon Tuesday. To RSVP, visit bit.ly/tallyrockstars.

Melanie Kalmanson (Photo: Your Turn)

Melanie Kalmanson, Esq., is  FSU College of Law alumna who clerked for retired Justice Barbara J. Pariente of the Supreme Court of Florida. She joined the litigation practice at Akerman LLP.

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