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Spotlight on Pro Bono: The Public Interest Law Initiative’s Statewide Pro Bono Programs

Spotlight on Pro Bono: The Public Interest Law Initiative’s Statewide Pro Bono Programs

The Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) is a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, with offices in Peoria and Champaign. PILI’s mission is to engage, inspire, and empower those advancing equal access to justice. PILI envisions making equal access to justice a reality through a legal community with a deeply rooted culture of service, where pro bono and public interest law engagement is optimized to best serve people, families, and communities in need. 

PILI administers several pro bono programs throughout the state of Illinois, working collaboratively with local bar associations, legal aid and other groups to complement the services already provided and to fill gaps in existing services, such as when a person cannot receive help from legal aid due to a conflict of interest. 

Much of this work is accomplished through PILI’s Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committees. These committees consist of judges, lawyers, court personnel and other legal professionals who work to enlist, educate, and recognize attorneys and others in their respective circuits who are dedicated to pro bono work. The ultimate goal is to expand the reach of legal aid to underserved communities. The committees were launched by PILI in partnership with Prairie State Legal Services and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid. Currently, PILI has eight Pro Bono Committees in the Third, Fifth, Sixth, Tenth, Eleventh, Fourteenth, Eighteenth, and Twentieth Circuits of Illinois.

Here are some examples of PILI’s Pro Bono Committee’s pro bono programs, for which volunteers are always needed and appreciated.

Self-Represented Litigant Help Desks

PILI has established Self-Represented Litigant Help Desks in the Champaign, Macon, Peoria, and Tazewell county courthouses. These help desks operate twice per month for two-hour shifts. During the shifts, volunteer attorneys meet with self-represented litigants for 30-minute appointments. Services provided by volunteers include helping litigants to understand and navigate the legal system, find legal resources and complete forms, and answering legal questions. The assistance is subject to a limited scope representation agreement and the volunteer attorney is not expected to work on the matter beyond the 30-minute appointment. Attendees at the help desks receive help with various matters including family law, debtor/creditor issues, housing, probate, and guardianships. In order to qualify for help desk services, a self-represented litigant must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines and have a civil legal matter or problem.

For all of these help desks, PILI regularly needs volunteer attorneys to meet with clients and attorneys or other legal professionals to do intake interviews before the client meets with the attorney. Newer attorneys may also shadow an experienced attorney at the help desk so that the newer attorney can observe how the help desk operates and prepare to handle a time slot on his or her own in the future. 

Anyone interested in volunteering at any of PILI’s help desks can sign up at:

Tenth Judicial Circuit Conflict of Interest Referral Panel

In February 2018, PILI established a pilot Conflict of Interest Referral Panel in the Tenth Circuit. The panel provides a referral source for participating legal aid agencies to send potential clients who have been denied service due to a conflict of interest. The program currently accepts referrals from Prairie State Legal Services’ Peoria office and serves potential clients who reside or have a legal issue in Marshall, Peoria, Stark, and Tazewell counties. 

Potential clients are only eligible for referral to the panel if they have been denied services by a participating legal aid agency due to a conflict of interest and have been referred to the panel by Prairie State Legal Services. Additionally, only civil legal matters that are not fee-generating are eligible for possible placement through this program, and all prospective clients must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. 

Volunteer attorneys are needed to accept referrals from the panel in a range of civil practice areas, including family law, guardianships, probate, and estate planning, real estate and debtor/creditor issues.  To volunteer for the Conflicts of Interest Referral Panel, please do so at:

Illinois Armed Forces Legal Assistance Network (IL-AFLAN)

In November 2017, the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation launched the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Assistance Network (IL-AFLAN), an initiative designed to provide veterans, active duty military, and their spouses and dependents who meet certain financial and other criteria with civil legal assistance through a statewide legal assistance hotline and coordinated network of legal support services. Legal service provided ranges from brief advice to extended courtroom representation, depending on the case. There are now several members in the IL-AFLAN network, including PILI, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, Prairie State Legal Services, The John Marshall Law School, Southern Illinois University School of Law, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, and others.

PILI officially joined the IL-AFLAN network on July 1, 2018, and, since then has been actively placing cases referred through IL-AFLAN with pro bono attorneys in the 101 counties outside of Cook County. Since July 1, 2018, PILI has received over 80 IL-AFLAN referrals and has accepted over 75 percent of those cases, placing many clients with pro bono attorneys. PILI accepts a wide variety of civil legal matters, including family law, housing issues, probate and estate planning, adult and child guardianships, and debtor/creditor cases. PILI offers malpractice insurance to its volunteers and provides training on veterans laws and issues throughout the state.

PILI currently seeks attorneys willing to join its volunteer roster and take cases in the 101 counties outside of Cook County. More information is available at

Attorneys who are interested in volunteering through IL-AFLAN to assist clients in Cook County, please contact Margaret Benson of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services by email or by phone at 312-332-5542.

Legal Help Within Reach

PILI’s newest program, Legal Help Within Reach, was created and is administered by PILI’s Equal Justice Works Fellow, Shelby Smith. Legal Help Within Reach is inspired by the Justice Bus Project of OneJustice, a California nonprofit that brings life-changing legal help to those in need by transforming the legal aid system.

Through Legal Help Within Reach, PILI recruits attorneys and law student volunteers from urban areas to volunteer at free legal clinics for low-income Illinoisans living in rural and underserved communities. These clinics provide much-needed and otherwise inaccessible legal assistance to low-income people, families, and communities in need. PILI works closely with law schools, law firms, corporate legal departments, and local organizations to carefully match volunteer interests with the communities in need of assistance through the Legal Help Within Reach project. Trips are usually one full day in length, with training being provided prior to and during the travel to the clinic site.

PILI just completed its first Legal Help Within Reach clinic through its Fourteenth Judicial Pro Bono Committee. The clinic took place at the YWCA in Sterling, and covered the topic of wills and powers of attorney. Volunteer attorneys and paralegals came from John Deere’s corporate legal department and Lane & Waterman, both of which, along with Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, are sponsors of Shelby’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship. More clinics are being planned.

More information about Legal Help Within Reach can be found at:

Volunteer Lawyer Eviction Project

Through its Twentieth Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee and in collaboration with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, PILI launched its newest pro bono opportunity in April, the St. Clair County Volunteer Lawyer Eviction Project. In assessing local need, the committee determined that a significant issue was the increasing number of low-income litigants who were unable to afford attorneys to represent them in eviction court. Due to lack of capacity and conflicts of interest, Land of Lincoln is not able to assist every litigant in need of an attorney, but recognized that there were cases that would be appropriate for a pro bono attorney to assist the litigant.

As part of the Eviction Project, a panel of volunteer attorneys willing to take eviction cases will be recruited. Land of Lincoln will then screen potential clients at the St. Clair County Courthouse. If Land of Lincoln is able to assist the litigant, it will seek a volunteer from a panel of pro bono attorneys assisting with this project. If Land of Lincoln is unable to assist due to a conflict of interest, PILI will seek a volunteer from the panel of pro bono attorneys and the attorney will be a PILI volunteer. Either way, pro bono attorneys will receive training, support, and malpractice coverage for any matters they handle through the project. The goal of the project is that relatively straightforward cases will be placed with volunteers, many of which will be limited scope representations.

All attorneys in the St. Clair County area are welcome to participate in this project, regardless of their experience with evictions. More information about volunteering can be found at:

PILI’s Pro Bono Pledge

Finally, in an effort to recognize and encourage pro bono locally, PILI has developed a Pro Bono Pledge to increase access to the legal system by expanding pro bono legal services to address the significant unmet need for legal assistance among low-income and underrepresented individuals and families in Illinois.  The Pro Bono Pledge calls on law firms and corporate legal departments to encourage attorneys and legal staff to provide pro bono legal services and in doing so, provide an environment hospitable to the rendition of such services; designate a primary pro bono point of contact within the firm or corporate law department; consider adopting a written pro bono policy; and recognize attorneys and legal staff who participate in pro bono services, as appropriate.  For more information, see:

In summary, PILI works collaboratively with local bar associations, legal aid, and lawyers, court personnel and other legal professionals to supplement and support existing pro bono and self-represented litigant assistance programs and expand opportunities for pro bono so that as many Illinoisans as possible can have access to justice.  To learn more about PILI and its programs, visit

Posted on May 14, 2019 by Rhys Saunders
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