Cooke fits legal services to the poor into his career—and his estate plan

The start of Ham Cooke’s legal career coincided with an event that marked a turning point, not only in American history, but also in Cooke’s perspective on his own role in society.

An Army veteran and political moderate raised in Kentucky, Cooke was no ’60s radical, but he took the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 as a call to action.

“I felt the need to get involved in programs that would foster black-white relations, and legal aid was one way,” said Cooke, who considered a career in legal services but decided instead to make his contribution through a combination of community involvement, pro bono work, and philanthropy.

He first got involved with his local legal aid organization in Jacksonville. Then, while on The Florida Bar Board of Governors, Cooke served as vice-chairman of the Joint Commission of The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Foundation on the Delivery of Legal Services to the Indigent in the early 1990s. He then joined the Foundation board, where he served for 10 years, including a year as president.

Cooke remembers seeing the Foundation’s creativity in action when the federal government placed strict limitations on the funding of legal services for the poor in the 1990s. In response, the Foundation helped devise a new funding and delivery system to ensure that the needs of Florida’s indigent clients would still be met.

“I learned how extremely dedicated the legal aid staff members are to the delivery of free legal services to the poor,” Cooke said. “One of the biggest things that made an impression on me is the can-do attitude of the Foundation and its staff. It was that spirit that meant a lot to me. The attitude was that the provision of full and unrestricted legal services to poor people is too important to let it get sidelined by the federal funding restrictions.”

An estate-planning attorney, Cooke, with the full support of his wife and children, has put The Florida Bar Foundation in his will, along with several other organizations that provide services to the poor.

“The Foundation’s work is particularly appealing to me,” Cooke said, “because you get so much bang for the buck. Generally, about 90% of your gift is used to provide services. And that’s really important. I’ve seen other charities where you worry that a disproportionate amount is going to administrative costs, and I know that the Foundation makes the dollars stretch as much as possible to provide services benefiting poor people.”