Lawyers work to foster a spirit of community


Published: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 3:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 12:00 a.m.
When they hear the word "attorney," most people think of lawsuits, courts or, worse, any number of negative associations people might typically make with the legal profession.
But the 8th Judicial Circuit Bar Association - which includes hundreds of attorneys from Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties - has spent a lot of energy in the last eight months to involve local lawyers and judges into making changes in those perceptions.
"When I began in September, I had a vision for this year of getting the lawyers out there, being a greater part of our community, of working to give something of ourselves," said association president Carl Schwait of his term at the helm of the organization. "What we experienced this year, what we were able to do, these were some of the best experiences of my career."
Two years ago, the bar agreed - in concert with the local medical society - to raise enough money for the lawyers and doctors to build a Habitat for Humanity home together. Each group would have to raise $17,500 for their half of the money. Their initial effort was promising, but with the many other obligations and projects taken on by the bar, the project stalled.
This year Schwait promised the remaining funds would be raised. Board members, led by Jeanne Singer with the State Attorney's office and John Jopling, of Dell Graham, rallied the troops.
At their annual dinner several weeks ago, the bar presented Habitat representative Dave Feather with a check for $18,149.92. Next year, says Singer, the lawyers and doctors will be swinging hammers side by side to build that house.
Last fall the board of directors made a commitment to support students at Duval Elementary School. The plan was that attorneys would provide Christmas gifts for 20 of the neediest children at the school. Duval administrators gave the bar a list of students' names, their ages and wish lists, and board member Margaret Stack of the State Attorney's office went to work finding sponsors.
"I'm pretty straightforward and right away I started calling people, lawyers in the circuit, challenging them. They could either make a donation to support any number of children they chose, or they could take the childrens' names and lists and do the shopping themselves. I was determined to have a stocking for every kid at that school," said Stack, who chaired the effort. "After about a week or so, people would see me coming and just reach for the checkbook or ask for a name and a list."
The response from local attorneys was so overwhelming that within weeks, Stack's ambitious goal was met. In December, Schwait, dressed as Santa and flanked by members of the bar, presented every one of the 341 students at Duval with Christmas stockings packed with gifts.
"Mostly, people associate lawyers with some sort of difficulty, especially where I work," laughs Stack. "This was especially gratifying because we had the opportunity to join together to give back to the community in a way that was very, very special to all of us. Now I can't wait to do it again."
Other recent projects include hosting a panel discussion in May commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education. The bar invited Charles Chestnut, Sandra Ezell, Joel Buchanan and the Rev. Thomas Wright to explore their experiences integrating Gainesville High School.
Attorney Stephen Bernstein, the incoming president of the association, is no less enthusiastic about his agenda for the coming bar year. "We're going to keep it up. We found that these projects were such rewarding experiences and connected us with the people in our communities and they've reinvigorated our association. We're going to build that Habitat house; we plan to continue the holiday project; we have plans for a safe room for kids at the new criminal justice center and we're trying to develop a lawyer referral service to meet the needs of the public. We're out there, just trying to give a little bit back."

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