Education

Many families struggle to afford a lawyer. This FIU program could help.

Michelle Mason, senior associate dean of Florida International University’s Law Practice, officially launches the program at a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday. The program will provide legal services to families who do not qualify for free legal services but still face difficulties affording a lawyer.
Michelle Mason, senior associate dean of Florida International University’s Law Practice, officially launches the program at a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday. The program will provide legal services to families who do not qualify for free legal services but still face difficulties affording a lawyer. spereira@miamiherald.com

Hiring a lawyer can be pricey — which is partially why many people, particularly in family court, lack legal representation.

Florida International University’s College of Law is aiming to fill that gap.

In an initiative launched Friday morning, FIU law graduates will offer affordable legal services to families who face financial difficulties hiring a lawyer but whose incomes are too high to qualify for free legal aid programs.

Michelle Mason, senior associate dean of the program, anticipates that there will eventually be six to eight in-house fellows providing services to around 360 to 480 clients each year. The program will hire one fellow this semester to begin.

“As a public institution, we want to be able to add to the discussion and help people,” said Mason. “What we’re doing makes sense given what the needs are locally.”

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Michelle Mason, senior associate dean, and Karim Batista, managing attorney, launched Florida International University College of Law’s Law Practice, which will provide legal services to families. SYDNEY PEREIRA spereira@miamiherald.com

The program is also designed to double as a teaching tool for young lawyers.

Fellows — recent graduates licensed to practice law in Florida — will offer services while learning the necessary skills to open their own practice.

“It closes the gap between knowing the law and how to run a business,” said Karim Batista, managing attorney of the program who opened his own law firm as a new lawyer in 2014. “It’s two different things.”

This “low bono” initiative — a variation on limited but free “pro bono” services some legal firms provide — will offer legal representation to low- and moderate-income families for services including divorce, domestic violence, enforcement of judgments, paternity/child support/time sharing, post-judgment modifications, and pre- and post-nuptial questions.

Mason said that charges will be determined based on the client’s ability to pay. Fees will range between $75 and $125 an hour with flexible installment payment plans. Many lawyers in private practice routinely charge rates that are double, triple or higher.

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