A Lakewood Ranch lawyer is honored for his legal aid work
Neil T. Lyons’ pro bono work is “my responsibility to the community,’’ he says.
If there’s one thing TV cops have taught us, it’s that suspects have rights.
You have the right to remain silent, though anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
You have the right to an attorney and to have that attorney present during questioning. And if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you at no cost.
Real officers and Hollywood stand-ins from Joe Friday to Crockett and Tubbs have been delivering those now-familiar Miranda warnings since the landmark 1966 Supreme Court decision as a recitation of accused criminals’ Constitutional rights.
But it’s that last one, the bit about representing those who can’t afford an attorney, that especially sticks to Lakewood Ranch lawyer Neil T. Lyons’ heart. Lyons specializes in elder law with Luhrsen Goldberg LLC and finds plenty of need for his services, often for free, or in legal terms, pro bono (literally, pro bono publico, which is Latin for “for the good of the public”).
“The work I do for my paid clients is my job,’’ Lyons said. “That's my job, because I do have financial goals I have to meet, regardless. The pro bono work I do is my responsibility to the community.”Neil T. Lyons
While criminal cases often grab the spotlight, free legal aid extends past handcuffs and jailhouse interrogations to equally important and more numerous areas, he says, adding civil cases outnumber criminal five to seven times. And, because there’s no Constitutional right to legal aid in civil cases, thousands of people would do without if not for attorneys who perform that same kind of legal work for no charge.
“The work I do for my paid clients is my job,’’ Lyons said. “That's my job, because I do have financial goals I have to meet, regardless. The pro bono work I do is my responsibility to the community.”
Lyons, who graduated from Stetson Law in 2011, has donated more than 1,000 hours of pro bono services to Legal Aid of Manasota and founded the Access to Justice Committee of the Sarasota Bar Association. That group coordinates pro bono services between bar associations, the 12th Circuit’s Pro Bono and legal aid groups to help lawyers match up with clients in need. The 12th Circuit includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.
In January, Lyons was one of 21 recipients of the Florida Bar Association’s Pro Bono Service Awards – one for each of the state’s judicial circuits and one for a Florida lawyer practicing out of state. About 100,000 men and women are members of the Florida Bar. The 12th Circuit encompasses Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.
From July 2022 to July 2023, Florida lawyers performed more than 1.5 million hours of free services to clients and donated more than $7.5 million to legal-aid groups, according to the Florida Bar. Generally, the Florida Bar recommends its members aspire to perform at least 20 hours of pro bono work annually or donate $350 to the cause, though there is no requirement to do so.
Elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area, Kit Van Pelt of Clearwater was the award recipient for the Sixth Circuit, encompassing Pasco and Pinellas counties; M. Taylor Tremel of Eustis was the recipient for the Fifth Circuit, encompassing Citrus, Lake, Hernando, Marion and Sumter counties; and Gilbert M. Singer of Tampa was the recipient for the 13th Circuit, encompassing Hillsborough County.
Lyons said a typical pro bono case might involve guardian advocacy for the parents of an adult child with autism, Down syndrome or other conditions that require health decisions to be made beyond the age of 18.
“When somebody turns 18 regardless of what their cognitive abilities are, the world considers them to be an adult, so those parents would run into issues with (medical-privacy regulations),’’ Lyons said, adding that physicians often must be careful about what information is revealed, even to a parent in such cases. “So we need something to say that it’s OK for (them) to tell you this.’’
Often, the adult child would be represented by one lawyer working on a pro bono basis with another representing the parents, though not in an adversarial setting. After parents call around learning the fees involved in such representation, they often turn to legal aid groups for help, if they qualify.
“So that’s nice because you get to see the rewarding experience of a parent,’’ Lyons said. “And you can kind of represent them long term for the most part. If I can help, why not?”
Unlike criminal representation of the indigent, often through the Public Defender’s Office but sometimes also through pro bono work, there is no public funding for representation in civil cases. That work is accomplished through lawyers and law firms committing to the practice and through private and philanthropical support of legal aid societies.
“I don’t know if anybody’s ever done a deep dive into what this would even look like or how much it would cost,’’ Lyons said of public funding of civil-case legal aid. “I would think it would bust the bank.’’
Lyons said he gains a measure of personal satisfaction and gratification in his pro bono work, and said he takes inspiration from his father and father-in-law, who both encouraged him to pursue the law and served in their own ways – his father as a Naval officer for 25 years and his father-in-law as a physician who frequently donated his medical services in New York City’s Harlem.
“As I say it, it would dishonor their memories if I didn’t do it,’’ he said.
Eric Garwood is the executive editor of the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org