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South Florida’s Attorneys: Lending a Hand


South Florida Legal Guide 2006 Edition


Editor’s Note: South Florida Legal Guide salutes the countless South Florida attorneys who are leaders in charitable, community and civic organizations — far too many for us to list in this publication.  Here is a small selection of the many attorneys who are volunteering their time and energy on behalf of a worthy cause. This article was prepared in September just as massive relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina was beginning.


By Richard Westlund

Both Mitchell E. Widom and Abbey L, Kaplan understand the impact of Crohn’s disease. Widom, a partner with Bilzin Sumberg, has been raising funds for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America since 1998 when his nephew was diagnosed with the disease. In 2004, his daughter was also diagnosed with Crohn’s.

Widom, who was recently elected to the foundation’s board, founded the annual Keymorada Invitational Fly-Spin Tournament — a fundraiser to help fight Crohn’s disease. "Mitch has been very effective in his endeavors to raise awareness of Crohn's disease," said John Sumberg, managing partner. "He has worked very hard to make the tournament a success, and we are proud to support those efforts."

Kaplan, founding partner, Kluger Peretz Kaplan & Berlin P.L. has been an active supporter of the foundation since his son was diagnosed with Crohn’s six years ago in high school. The law firm helped raise more than $100,000 for the foundation at a June golf tournament in Palm Beach County, and also took first place among more than 60 law firms that participated in the 2005 Keymorada tournament. Kaplan draws a parallel between the problem-solving mission of lawyers on a daily basis, and his firms’ accompanying obligation to help solve humanitarian problems.

The diagnosis of a child with a serious disorder frequently becomes the catalyst for a firm’s substantial charitable undertakings. Estate lawyer Barry A. Nelson and wife Judith S. Nelson, a former worker’s compensation judge who now is a mediator, have an 11-year-old son, Jesse, who is autistic.

The Nelsons founded the non-profit Victory School at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach after failing to find an adequate learning program for their son. Nelson says everyone in his firm is involved in the Victory School in some capacity. Office Manager Mirlene Dubreuze sits on the school’s board and Nelson’s assistant helps with marketing. With everyone pitching in, the school now has an outreach program to increase enrollment from its current 25 students.

Regardless of the cause, Americans have been a generous people throughout history, and the nation’s attorneys are leaders in countless community and charitable causes. One of the organizations that tracks U.S. philanthropy, the Giving USA Foundation, recently estimated that charitable giving reached $248.52 billion for 2004, a new record.

"About 70 to 80 percent of Americans contribute annually to at least one charity,” said C. Ray Clements, chair of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, which launched Giving USA in 1956.  “Being a 'philanthropist' does not merely mean making huge gifts; it means giving to any cause that you value."



RESPONDING TO DISASTER

After a devastating tsunami left a trail of human tragedy across the Indian Ocean last December, the attorneys and staffers at Ruden McClosky in Fort Lauderdale volunteered to help.  “We got a lot of emails and notes from employees asking what they could do,” said David Lane, executive director.

Realizing there was a limit to what each individual could contribute, the firm decided to offer a 4-1 match for donations from associates and staffers and a 1-1 match for gifts from partners. As a result, the firm raised $40,000 for the AmeriCares’ Tsunami Relief Fund. “We couldn’t provide hands-on help to the victims from Fort Lauderdale,” Lane said, “but by working together and pooling our funds, we were able to make a meaningful contribution.”

On a national level, contributions for tsunami relief were less than one-half of 1 percent of the 2004 total, according to the Giving USA report. Most of the tsunami relief — estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion — will appear in the 2005 statistics.

Of course, contributions to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will be an important element of this year’s charitable giving. And South Florida attorneys and law firms have a long tradition of responding quickly to natural disasters.

For instance, Pathman Lewis LLP mobilized the entire firm to help the victims of Hurricane Charley on Florida’s Gulf Coast in August 2004. After contacting emergency relief services, the Pathman Lewis attorneys rented a 30-foot truck, and filled it with $20,000 worth of supplies — everything from shovels and flashlights to diapers, toothbrushes and canned foods, according to partner Wayne Pathman.

The Miami firm closed its doors for two days as a volunteer team of attorneys drove to Port Charlotte with the relief truck and distributed the supplies with assistance from the National Guard.  “We also gave free legal advice for anyone who needed help applying for aid, making their car payments or dealing with their insurers,” said Pathman. “Having been through Hurricane Andrew ourselves, we knew what it was like, and were glad to help out our neighbors in Florida.”


SUPPORTING LOCAL CAUSES

Like many South Florida lawyers, the attorneys at Carlton Fields, P.A., Miami, contribute their time to a number of charitable causes in South Florida.  “We bring community-based organizations to our office to meet with our attorneys and see if there’s a mutual interest,” said Steven J. Brodie, partner, Miami. “I think that being able to serve those who are in need makes our community stronger and more vibrant.”

Brodie himself is a leader in the United Way of Miami-Dade. With Bob Dickinson, CEO, Carnival Cruise Lines, Brodie chaired a recent “Valor Cruise” that raised $1.6 million for the organization, which supports and Camillus House. Brodie is also active in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and serves on the executive committee of the Miami Community Relations Board (CRB).

“Attorneys usually represent those who prosper,” said Brodie. “However, South Florida has many people who are in need of help. We ask our attorneys to commit their time to community endeavors, and we are proud of their contributions.”

Other law firms also believe in giving back to the community. For instance, Berger Singerman P.A. is planning to make a substantial community donation instead of throwing a lavish party to celebrate its 20th anniversary this fall. “We decided not to spend a ton of money on a gala event, said Paul Singerman, co-CEO.  “We support a number of charitable, educational and civic groups, and are planning a donation that will be in the six figures.”

Singerman said he feels it’s important for all law firms to give back to the community. “We hope other professionals take note of our action,” he said, “and find a way to make a contribution.”


LEADING THE WAY

Trial attorney Daniel A. Casey, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP, Miami, is wearing another hat this year. In June he was elected volunteer chair of the national board of YMCA of the USA, the national office for the country’s 2,595 YMCAs.

“Our family has been active in the Y for more than 20 years,” said Casey. “I think the Y does a great job in offering programs for children and families. Over the next few years, we will be taking part in a strategic planning process for the Y movement across America. We’re also working hard on emphasizing fitness programs to help get our kids and adults more physically active.”

And Casey is far from the only South Florida attorney to play a leadership role in state and national organizations. Milton Ferrell, chairman, Ferrell Law, Inc. is serving as volunteer chair of the Jackson Memorial Foundation, which raises funds to support Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“Milt Ferrell has provided very effective leadership and strategic planning,” said Rolando Rodriguez, the foundation’s president and CEO. For instance, Ferrell has been involved in starting an international philanthropy program for the foundation to increase the geographic range of potential donors. “Jackson Memorial Hospital is a world-class institution,” said Rodriguez. “That means setting a high standard throughout the organization, and attracting donors who can help the facility grow.”

Another national volunteer leader is Steve Rossman,  founding partner, Rossman Baumberger Reboso & Spier, P.A., He and his wife Karen discovered Easter Seals 20 years ago when seeking help for their own daughter, who had neurological disabilities and required a special-needs school and intimate setting. 

“We were very impressed by the services and the dedication of the people there,” said Rossman, Since then, Rossman has been a volunteer leader in Easter Seals, helping to raise funds for new facilities for the disabled of all ages. In 2004 he was elected to the national board. “I think it’s very important for all of us to give back to the community in whatever way possible,” he said. “I got involved on a personal basis, and for me Easter Seals was the place.”


SUPPORTING THE ARTS AND EDUCATION

Robert M. Montgomery, Jr., partner, Montgomery & Larson, L.L.P, is known throughout Palm Beach County for his charitable contributions, including the Palm Beach Opera and the Children’s Place at Home Safe, a shelter for abused children.

To encourage more young people to get involved in the arts, Montgomery was one of the founders for Armory Arts School in 1985, and today his wife Mary serves on the board. “The arts in the schools have really been bypassed with all the concern about state testing,” Montgomery said. “But everyone knows that the arts are wonderful for students, not just by encouraging their creativity but by building discipline and self-motivation as well.”

The Armory Arts School also offers master-classes for aspiring artists and community programs for adults and retirees. “I think the arts have so many benefits,” he said, “that they should play a central role in every community.”

Education is another important issue for South Florida lawyers. Twenty-five years ago, West Palm Beach attorney Edward Ricci, Ricci~Leopold, and his wife, former Judge Mary Lupo, helped found Hope Rural School in Martin County for immigrant children of farm and migrant workers. Since that time, Ricci has served as volunteer counsel and member of the board for the independent Catholic elementary school with an enrollment of about 100 students.

“We wanted to create a warm, loving environment where the children of migrant workers from Guatemala and other Central American countries could learn English,” said Ricci. “We also wanted to foster nurturing values.”

Many of the school’s early students have now gone on to college, and several have become teachers themselves. “Before I became an attorney, I was a high school teacher in Washington, D.C., and I know how important it is to help children get a good education,” said Ricci. “This is a cause that is dear to my heart.”

Fifty miles to the south, attorneys Kevin Levy and Ben Wilson, Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart, P.A., are volunteer “eMentors” corresponding several times a week with students in Miami Senior High School’s law magnet program.  “We don’t just talk about the law in an abstract way — we talk about the topics of the week, like the Michael Jackson trial or women’s legal issues,” said Levy. “You can see their maturity and interest in the law grow from month to month.”

The Young Lawyers Section of the Dade Bar launched the program in 2001, and participation has been growing for five years. “Our discussions show how law has an impact in everyday society, and the many career options they have,” added Wilson, who was recently named eMentor of the year. “This program helps them decide about joining the legal profession.”

When it comes to education, Brian McDonough believes in giving young children a better chance to learn.  “Education is the single biggest thing that separates people from a successful or unsuccessful life,” said McDonough, shareholder, Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, P.A.,   

In November 2004, McDonough founded Give Kids A Chance, a foundation to provide college scholarships to high school students from low-income families, A 2004 Miami Beach golf tournament raised $110,000 for the new charity — enough to provide 20 four-year scholarships. “This is a great way to give back to kids who are trying to get out from under tough situations,” he said. “The golf tournament received overwhelming support from my friends, and gave me an opportunity to bond with two of my daughters, who provided assistance in coordinating this event.” 


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