As I approach nine years of service with The Florida Bar Foundation, I recall that for some time every board meeting was an education about the many moving parts of the Foundation, and how all of those components fit together to serve the cause of justice. The Foundation is a vaguely understood entity. I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief description of one aspect of the Foundation’s work – the IOTA program.
The Foundation has three essential functions related to IOTA: to (1) get, (2) manage, and (3) disburse, funds. The majority of the funds come from interest on lawyer trust accounts (IOTA).
Getting the money is not a passive process. Florida has 168 financial institutions that participate in the IOTA program. Within those 168 financial institutions, there are 36,319 separate IOTA accounts. These are not static numbers: banks come and go and are often merging. And, the number of IOTA accounts change as new law firms open and old law firms close. The employees in the Foundation’s IOTA department must keep up with these changes.
The Foundation’s IOTA department also constantly monitor receipts to ensure that the financial institutions are making the payments required by the IOTA rule. The department also spends a lot of time helping law firms and financial institutions comply with the IOTA rule.
The second category of indispensable functions for an IOTA program is to make sure that funds held in our trust are properly managed. Any organization entrusted with funds for the public good must ensure they are properly accounted for, with all due oversight as to ensure that the funds are not wasted. The Foundation’s finance department properly accounts for the funds to which it is entrusted from a finance and accounting standpoint, and transactions are documented correctly to ensure the protection of the funds.
The finance department also monitors the investment of funds that are pooled until disbursed as grants. Early leaders of the Foundation adopted a conservative approach of using a previous year’s IOTA funds for the following year’s grants disbursements. This allows certainty as to the amount of funds available. This is preferable to extending grants based on an expectation of what might come.
IOTA programs in other states which did not follow this approach were less able to minimize the harms of the programs in those states when revenues dropped in and after 2008. Since 1982, the Foundation has generated more than $41 million in investment earnings that have created more revenue used to support the legal aid community.
The third component is to disburse funds as grants. Care must be taken to ensure that disbursements will serve the mission given to us by the Supreme Court of Florida: to expand and improve representation and advocacy on behalf of low-income persons in civil legal matters, to improve the fair and effective administration of justice, and to promote public service among lawyers by making it an integral component of the law school experience.
While these were established as a three-pronged mission, in our actual practice the second and third prongs of the mission can also serve the first prong; our law school programs and our administration of justice grants also effectively serve to expand and improve representation and advocacy on behalf of low-income people in civil legal matters.
This is a very abbreviated thumbnail sketch of the work of the Foundation. By effectively performing these core functions, we provide vital support to the cause of civil justice in Florida.