TALLAHASSEE — A Sarasota-based lawyer recently earned some recognition after devoting her life to helping the those who are less fortunate.
Michele S. Stephan, owner of Legal On Your Own, was one of 21 attorneys to receive the Florida Bar Association's Florida Bar President's Pro Bono Service Award on Jan. 19. The award that has been given out annually since 1981 to recognize lawyers who volunteer services to poor and indigent clients. Pro bono service in each of Florida's 20 judicial circuits as well as service by one Florida Bar member practicing outside the state is honored.
Stephan's history of pro bono legal services goes back to the beginnings of her legal career. During her tenure as a legal student at Stetson University College of Law, she participated in the Public Service Fellowship from The Florida Bar Foundation. During this time, she received the school's Pro Bono Service Award.
“I became interested in law in high school when I realized I wanted to help people and make a difference,” Stephan told The Florida Record. “I discovered during the fellowship that I really enjoyed going out into the public and working with them.”
Also during her fellowship, Stephan created a program to provide legal services for those who could not qualify for other legal-aid services. After finishing school, she spent the next 20 years practicing personal-injury law first at a firm she owned herself and then at Shapiro, Goldman, Babboni and Walsh.
In August 2016, she left Shapiro, Goldman, Babboni and Walsh to found Legal On Your Own, which specializes in providing legal services to customers attempting to serve as their own attorneys.
“The modern courts have a glut of people trying to perform legal service for themselves,” Stephan said. “These individuals will go down to the clerk's office where they are given a stack of forms that no one will help them fill out. My goal is to help them take the stress and uncertainty out of the process so they can walk away happy. This is a career change that has allowed me to transition where my heart is.”
Today, she conducts a weekly clinic at the Resurrection House, a homeless day shelter, where she offers legal services to the homeless and also is a volunteer for Legal Aid of Manasota.
“I spend a lot of time working to help the homeless with identification,” Stephan said. “For most homeless people, if their identification gets stolen it can be very difficult to replace, because they typically need a birth certificate to get an ID, but they need an ID to get a copy of your birth certificate. I help people navigate this system.”
Other issues she provides help with include a Sarasota ordinance that penalizes individuals for sleeping outside after dark with a $300 fine or 30 days of community service.
“So for a lot of homeless people, they have to walk outside the city limits to sleep,” Stephan said. “But most of the services they need are found inside the city.”