Lending a Hand
Florida attorneys pitch in to raise funds—and hope
Published in 2012 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
By Betsy Graca on May 23, 2012
For the past two decades, Stephen Milbrath has stepped up to fight for the rights of children caught up in the court system when no one else would. “I just have a heart for kids,” says the intellectual property lawyer at Allen, Dyer, Doppelt, Milbrath & Gilchrist in Orlando. “I have five of my own, and I enjoy working with kids. These are pretty tough cases [in the sense that] nobody cares about them. And so, they really do need somebody to advocate for their interests.”
Last year, the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association recognized Milbrath’s dedication by honoring him with the Guardian ad Litem Award of Excellence. Milbrath, not one to brag, didn’t share the news with his partners.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid lawyer,” he says. Even as a special assistant U.S. attorney in the 1980s, he got government approval to continue his pro bono work while in a public-sector role. “Guardian work [in Florida] involves basically being a kid’s advocate, often with negotiating with the ever-enlarging bureaucracy. … A lot of the kids are born with cocaine-addiction issues or they’re otherwise impaired from their upbringing—sometimes physically disabled, sometimes mentally disabled; and they have a lot of issues over getting their funding.”
He advises other young attorneys to get involved in pro bono work as well—emphasizing the opportunities to handle cases on their own. The independence is valuable, but so is the work itself.
Jaime Rich Vining
What happens when a bunch of IP attorneys get together and compete to build a patented item as fast as they can? You get The Patently Impossible Project, designed to raise funds for the Dade Legal Aid Society. “We figured it was ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’” says Jaime Rich Vining, the intellectual property lawyer who heads the event.
As chair of the Dade County Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Committee, Vining decided to forgo the standard cocktail-party fundraiser and instead bring out the inner child in the local legal community. “In my area of law,” says Vining, partner at Miami’s Friedland Vining, “we deal with a lot of artists and creative people and scientists, and we wanted something that was sort of reflective of that and fun.” The fundraiser, held twice so far, has been a smashing success.
For the second year, 200 to 300 lawyers, paralegals and law students took on the challenge: Build something from an expired patent that is kept top-secret by the hosts until the last minute. This year, it was a miniature robot. (The same copyright lawyer, Octavio Robles, finished first both years.)
The Miami Science Museum makes a perfect backdrop for the event. “It’s sort of a Night at the Museum kind of feeling,” Vining says. “We all turn into children at the museum.”
Of course the mission behind The Patently Impossible Project is a serious one. “Across the board, funding has been cut for organizations like Legal Aid,” says Vining, “and I think it’s important for attorneys to have a vested interest in [such] organizations.”
Educate Tomorrow, launched by Damian & Valori partner Melanie Damian, has made the future brighter for more than 500 young people in Florida since 2003.
“I was representing kids in foster care through the Guardian ad Litem and Lawyers for Children programs, and I realized that the service ends [at age] 18,” Damian says. “You’d be discharged as their lawyer at 18—they could be in high school or not, but they would also get kicked out of their foster homes and they’d essentially become homeless.”
Damian stumbled across a state law that said all kids who turned 18 while in foster care were entitled to a free public-college education plus a living stipend. Educate Tomorrow was established to broadcast that message, and match the kids up with mentors to help with college applications.
Damian, who chairs the Florida Bar Business Law Section’s Pro Bono Committee, received the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award in 2008, the Pepsi Everyday Freedom Hero Award in 2007, and was chosen as a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami 2012 Miracle Maker.
She has more big plans in the works: Educate Tomorrow is partnering with the SEED Foundation to open a Miami boarding school for at-risk middle- and high-schoolers.
In the meantime, the first recipients of Education Tomorrow’s help are returning to help. “They graduated college and came back and now mentor other kids,” says Damian. “You feel like you’re breaking that cycle and actually turning it on its head.”
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