As Southern Legal Counsel celebrates 35 years of advocating for justice for all, it advocates for its own public profile—and hopes to garner support in the process.
It may be one of the most familiar names you’ve never heard of.
Given its involvement in some of the biggest legal cases in Florida over the past four decades, you might expect to find a lot of information about Gainesville-based Southern Legal Counsel.
But besides a reference or occasional quote from one of its lawyers in accounts of those cases, there is not much to find. The public-interest law firm, which has traditionally represented people who might not have access to the legal system, is not known for courting the spotlight. It often works to represent citizens with disabilities, reform education law and protect the environment—all to live up to its mission of advocating for “equal justice for all and the attainment of basic human and civil rights.”
“We’re attorneys,” says SLC lawyer Kirsten Clanton. “We’re not focused on telling people what we’re doing or touting our accomplishments because we’re usually trying to move on to the next problem and tackle the next issue.”
That may soon change. The not-for-profit legal service is marking its 35th anniversary by trying to raise its profile, and in the process its donations.
A Gator Institution
Southern Legal Counsel was founded in 1977 by faculty at the University of Florida College of Law. Founders include Jon Mills, Chesterfield Smith Sr., Joseph R. “Dick” Julin, Michael McIntosh and Joseph Onek. An offshoot of the law school’s Center for Governmental Responsibility, it was set up to handle lawsuits that grew out of the center’s watchdog efforts. Today, it is run largely by three University of Florida College of Law alumni, several UF law clerks and UF undergraduate interns.
Eventually, the focus grew slightly more independent from the university.
“When it changed, really from research and providing work under some grants into needing to do some litigation, it was time to get out from under the UF umbrella,” says Jodi Siegel, the firm’s executive director since 2004.
Recent litigation has ranged from suing the state over how it funds education in Florida to challenging rules on state care for institutionalized patients. Its most recent case is working with residents concerned about a water permit for the Adena Springs Ranch in Marion County, but does not yet involve any lawsuit.
“SLC is a rational way to get policy changes that affect a large group instead of one person at a time,” says co-founder Mills, the dean emeritus at the UF Levin College of Law and founder of the Center for Governmental Responsibility.
Courting Public Opinion
To maintain its ability to act as watchdog to government agencies, the SLC depends on outside donations. But a legal service with a reputation for going to court on behalf of the disadvantaged can seem like a tough sell for some donors. Businesses, for instance, have been on the opposing side in some of SLC’s cases, like challenges to trespassing ordinances aimed at the homeless in St. Petersburg and Ocala.
Mills says that the cases they take on aren’t always popular, but adds that he thinks “there are a number of people who realize the need to hold government accountable.”
Siegel notes the cases they take up are just as likely to favor business interests. One example is the suit filed in 2009 on behalf of parents and education advocates, claiming the state is not living up to its constitutional responsibility to properly fund the education system. She says that effort, still in the courts, garnered support from businesses wanting a good educational system to draw on.
The challenge of cultivating a unanimously favorable image, according to Director of Litigation Neil Chonin, is that “we do everything.” The variety of issues the legal service takes on, he says, means that depending on the circumstances of any given case “there might be a segment that is not in love with us, and another segment that is.”
“What people probably don’t understand is that one of our primary goals is making government more effective and more efficient,” Siegel says. She cites one suit involving care for the disabled, where a court found that the state was spending more to keep people in nursing homes than to pay for home health care.
“We are really trying to make the systems work better,” she says.
Clanton says that keeping the effort going will require Southern Legal Counsel to come up with “some creative and strategic thinking in terms of how we fund our work and what we do.”
A good example of that is SLC’s effort to draw on the donation that attorneys pay in lieu of the Florida Bar requirement of offering “pro bono,” or voluntary representation, as a public service. Development director Nell Page encourages attorneys in Gainesville and the 8th Judicial Circuit to offer their pro bono dollars in lieu of hours directly to SLC.
“It’s really touching, the response we have gotten just on this preliminary level with attorneys who do know about Southern Legal and what they do,” Page says.
Making sure that not only lawyers know about Southern Legal Counsel will be important to the firm’s continued success, but Siegel says she is confident. “I think once anyone really understands the stories of the people we help and how we are helping improve the State of Florida, almost anybody will support us.”
To keep the independence needed to watch and challenge government agencies, SLC does not seek out government funds. It has traditionally raised the majority of its nearly $1 million-a-year budget through grants from outside groups, particularly the Florida Bar. But that funding is getting scarce while calls for aid have increased, notes Siegel.
The firm is looking for other sources of money and, in particular, is putting more emphasis on attracting private donations. “That’s one of the areas that has not been tapped into,” says Nell Page, the firm’s new development director. Her position, created just this year, is one example of the altered approach to fundraising.
Page says the initial emphasis is to make sure potential funders have “an awareness of what we’re doing and how we’re different.” That means illustrating for donors Southern Legal Counsel’s focus on tackling systemic issues, as well as emphasizing the firm’s ties to both Gainesville and UF. “I think we just have to make what we do understandable,” Siegel says.