Florida Bar will honor Torres’ 400-plus hoursof pro bono service today
Written By: Lee Nessel
James L. Torres is a board-certified, civil trial lawyer who has tried big cases, some involving millions of dollars. But it’s the 400-plus hours of pro bono work, including more than 200 cases for Brevard County Legal Aid, that is earning him recognition from the Florida Bar in Tallahassee today.
“When you do (big cases), there are 100 other lawyers in town who will do that,” Torres said. “But in many of these cases, you’re not the lawyer of last resort, you”re the lawyer of only resort..”
“These cases’ involve representing poor and indigent clients in consumer matters like credit card collection, repossession, garnishment and foreclosure. Prompted by his wife, Kim, a certified mediator, he realized people in small claims court needed better representation.
The need is great, but the qualifications to receive free services through Legal Aid are so stringent that the organization’s director, Rob Johnson, (Executive Director of “Brevard County Legal Aid”) said they turn away seven or eight out of every 10 people.
“He’s been extraordinary, a guy who has extensive litigation experience and brings a lot of the experience to bear for folks who otherwise would have no representation whatsoever and would be lost at sea in the courtroom,” Johnson said. “These are people who would not have had legal recourse without his help. He’s an above-and-beyond type of guy.”
Torres, 51, estimated that pro bono cases have at times consumed as much as 25 percent of his practice, but now it’s down to about 15 percent to 20 percent.
“It’s sort of taken over my life,” Torres said. “There is a happiness that you get as a lawyer when you do something that you know almost no one else is willing to do.”
Disabled Air Force veteran Armando LaFuente, 50, of Palm Bay, credited Torres with helping his family of six battle creditors as they survive on his disability pension. It was $930 a month until the new year, when it went up to $965.
“He has been the best attorney, the kindest, most attentive to my problems. He returns my calls instantly,” LaFuente said. “Other attorneys, because I have no money and the problems I”m having, they don’t want to talk to you. Mr. Torres treats you like you’ve got a million dollars. He is really nice person”
As mediation services coordinator for Brevard County Civil Court, Ollie Lyons said he knows how overwhelming the court system can be for people who cannot afford legal representation.
“Given the difficult economic times we live in, there has never been a greater need for attorneys to step up and volunteer their time,” Lyons said. “Attorneys like Mr. Torres provide an invaluable service not only to their clients, but also to the entire court system.”
Obtaining free representation can be life-changing for most Legal Aid clients. A few-thousand-dollar settlement could destroy someone’s life who is on a fixed income, and Johnson said, “They could easily lose their ability to remain productive members of their community.”
Applicants to Legal Aid are prioritized by immediate need and must meet stringent income qualifications in order to qualify. Income needs to be at 125 percent of poverty, meaning a family of four earning about $27,000 a year. Cases that involve victims of domestic violence and children often are given priority.
Torres said he’s driven more than 15,000 miles back and forth to work on pro bono cases in Brevard and also for Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida out of Volusia County.
“My wife tells me I should be thankful for the attention (of the award), so maybe it will inspire others to do this,” Torres said. “I hope that (pro bono cases) will be a permanent part of my legal practice.”
James L. Torres
The Indialantic laywer will be among 21 Florida lawyers to be recognized by the Florida Bar for their work on behalf of poor and indigent clients at a ceremony today at the Supreme Court of Florida in Tallahassee. He also will be honored at Brevard County Legal Aid’s 25th annual Pro Bono Awards and Recognition Gala on Feb. 17.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in government from Florida State University in 1982, and law degree with honors from Florida State University College of Law in 1985.
Legal: Admitted to the Florida Bar in 1985; member of the Southern and Middle District Federal Courts in Florida
Practice: Opened James L. Torres, PA in Indialantic in Feb. 2006
Family: Wife, Kim; daughters Kelsey, 22, who graduated from Tulane University in 2011, and Kendall, 19, who attends FSU