It truly is a win-win situation. It is not surprising that there is a great need for free legal services in the Chicago metropolitan area but the legal aid organizations are overwhelmed and unable to meet the need. At the same time, there are many stay-at-home lawyers who have talents and services to offer but are constrained by family commitments. The Pro Bono Network (PBN) has developed a winning model that meets the needs of these primary caretakers, yet provides fully-committed legal representation and services to those in need of help.
Our model is simple but has proven to be very effective. We partner with an existing legal aid agency and either expand or adapt its pro bono program so that it will fit within the time constraints of stay-at-home parents. The agency must be willing to provide training near our members and provide video training for those unable to attend the live session; allow for flexible hours; allow attorneys to work in pairs (to ensure back up when a sick child situation arises); and, very importantly, provide malpractice insurance. In return, we provide guaranteed, skilled volunteers and a single project manager for the agency to work with. We also provide translators who assist in interviewing and communicating with non-English speaking clients. Every project is managed by a volunteer project manager who arranges training and coordinates assignments.
Since PBN was established three years ago, we have partnered with 10 legal aid agencies in the Chicago area on a wide variety of projects. Through our current projects we have:
• Helped over 10 victims of domestic violence get orders of protection against their abusers with the Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF). We are representing clients in Maywood, which was in great need of domestic violence representation.
• Represented over 35 low-income clients facing eviction or other landlord/tenant issues due to foreclosure or landlord misbehavior by drafting pre-litigation letters and emergency motions for the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing. According to LCBH, for every tenant client we take we save LCBH 30 hours.
• Helped over 100 seniors by drafting simple wills, living wills and powers of attorney for health care and property at clinics held throughout the year and by providing monthly staffing at three clinics on Chicago’s West Side for the Center for Disability and Elder Law.
• Helped 29 undocumented immigrants who were victims of domestic violence or serious crimes obtain U-Visas with LAF. Among the clients receiving Visas, is a couple who saved two children from witnessing a brutal murder and are now raising them.
• Helped over 45 low-income debtors represent themselves in the collections courtroom with the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS).
• Taught public school children at underserved schools about the Federal Constitution and legal system through the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago.
• Monitored legislation affecting the rights of homeless students for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH).
• Represented women in Cook County Jail on matters relating to their families with the Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM).
• Provided telephone counseling to low income clients with Prairie State Legal Service in its 36 county service area.
• Helped low-income Cook County residents obtain a divorce with Metropolitan Family Services.
To see a full description of the projects please visit our website at: http://www.pro-bono-network.org. Several of the projects are done from home completely on your own time; while others do require visits to the jail or courthouse. All of the projects are open to attorneys who are on inactive status. The beauty of the model is that there is a project that can fit everyone’s schedule.
Another benefit of the model is that we are really making a difference in providing much-needed free legal assistance to those in need. Since its inception in 2011, PBN has grown to over 100 attorneys who have served almost 350 clients and clocked more than 3,000 volunteer hours. In the first quarter of 2014, we have provided over 575 hours of free legal work.
The hours we donate have not just helped the clients we serve directly; they have also benefitted the agencies we work with. Agencies tell us that they have expanded the geographic scope of their work due to our attorneys being located primarily on the west side. In addition, at least two agencies have been able to handle a greater number of complex matters because our attorneys have taken so many of the brief-service needs off their desks. Further evidence of our success is that we have received award recognition from several of the agencies we work with.
Perhaps most importantly to many of us, we have a shared affection for each other and a sense of community. While it is worthwhile to give back and help others, it is also a great by-product that we have made many new and lasting friendships. There is a warm sense of camaraderie among us. We even get-together socially a few times of year and enjoy catching up on each others’ lives.
PBN has grown exponentially over the past two years. We started in 2011, with the idea to bring volunteer work to the attorneys instead of the other way around. We quickly exploded from 10 mothers to include at-home fathers, sole practitioners, retirees, and now even full-time lawyers who like how we operate. We have also grown from Oak Park. In 2013, we expanded into the DuPage community and plan to do the same on the north side of Chicago in the fall. Although we began as a 100% volunteer organization, to bring our model to more places we have transitioned to having two part-time staff who are paid through a combination of grants and donations. It truly does make pro bono easy.
To learn more about us or join or network, please visit our Web site: . If you want to learn more about us in person, we will be having a fall kickoff in Oak Park On August 28th and one on the North Side of Chicago September 9th. All of the projects will be providing training for new members in early fall. Come and join us, you really will not be sorry. ■