Attorney Bruce B. Blackwell of Winter Park, a founding partner of King, Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, P.A., in Orlando and now CEO/executive director of The Florida Bar Foundation, is the recipient of the 2016 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, the highest statewide pro bono award. The award will be presented by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga at a Jan. 28 ceremony at the Supreme Court of Florida in Tallahassee.
The award commemorates the late Miami lawyer Tobias Simon, who was a tireless civil rights attorney, a crusader for prison reform and an appellate authority. The award is intended to encourage and recognize extraordinary contributions by Florida lawyers in making legal services available to people who otherwise could not afford them, and to focus public awareness on the substantial voluntary services rendered by Florida lawyers.
For Blackwell, more than 40 years of pro bono service has meant not just the direct representation of clients but also recruiting others to provide pro bono representation and lobbying to strengthen and preserve the network of legal aid organizations serving the poor.
In 2014, Blackwell showed his commitment to service by retiring from the firm he helped to found and becoming only the second CEO/executive director in the history of The Florida Bar Foundation. Blackwell was interim director for three months and then, when asked, took the full-time position. He became CEO at a difficult time, as low interest rates depleted the Foundation’s reserves at the very time that access to justice was becoming such a crucial issue in Florida.
“This was a call I just had to answer, as the Foundation is simply too important,” Blackwell said.
Beyond his work with the Foundation, Blackwell has donated thousands of hours of direct pro bono services. He has consistently and successfully handled cases that are complex, contentious and even controversial.
In the course of one landlord-tenant case, Blackwell and his family ended up taking in a 17-year-old girl and making sure she got through college. Today, she is a public health veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and she considers Blackwell – her pro bono attorney – to be her father.
In 1997 and 2013, Blackwell received The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award. Among other honors, he has received The Florida Bar Foundation’s Medal of Honor and President’s Award for Excellence, the American Bar Association’s Grassroots Advocacy Award and Pro Bono Publico Award, and the Florida Council of Bar Association Presidents’ Outstanding Voluntary Bar President Award.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Blackwell graduated from Florida State University College of Law.
Created in 1982, the Tobias Simon award is believed to be the first of its kind in the country conferring recognition by a state’s highest court on a private lawyer for voluntary, free legal services to the poor. A permanent plaque listing the names of all award recipients is displayed in the lawyers’ lounge of the Supreme Court in Tallahassee.
This year’s awards ceremony, which also honors voluntary bar, circuit, law firm, young lawyer, state judicial, and federal judicial pro bono efforts, is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 28, at 3:30 p.m. at the Supreme Court. Watch it live at http://wfsu.org/gavel2gavel.