The Bar News

Pro Bono in the Age of COVID-19

By Matthew Hulstein

On March 17, the Cook County Circuit Court largely shut down to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Many other county and federal courts have also closed their doors. Law firms and legal aid organizations have also shuttered their offices, sending scores of attorneys to work from home. On March 21, Gov. Pritzker ordered all “non-essential” economic activity to cease and for Illinois residents to shelter in place. Hundreds of companies have gone dark, laying off thousands of vulnerable workers. Unemployment applications have surged, and bills will go unpaid.

It’s a new age for pro bono.

With our economy falling into recession, a wave of legal problems will flood our struggling legal system. Our country will need low-cost legal services more than ever before. And yet, critical social distancing hampers our ability to deliver those services. Moving forward, we will need to find clients and resolve their problems from makeshift home offices.

The legal community is ready to meet this daunting challenge. As the doors closed, legal aid listservs buzzed, with each organization sharing resources, news, and legal analysis. Pro bono coordinators from major firms also reached out, eager for remote volunteer opportunities.

CVLS quickly compiled the following initiatives, with more to come. Please share far and wide. And let this small sampling inspire new ways to lend a (remote) hand.

Remote Client Interviewing

For years, CVLS has used volunteer attorneys and interns to interview prospective clients in our downtown offices. This has now gone remote. When a new client calls CVLS, they are connected with a volunteer attorney by phone. CVLS staff also helps the client send in their intake docs electronically. Free smartphone apps, like CamScanner, make this very easy. The volunteer can then conduct the interview remotely, using CVLS scripts, checklists, and templates.

Virtual SIJS Clinic

CVLS and the National Immigrant Justice Center partner to help eligible immigrant children gain US citizenship through the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program. NIJC works on the immigration aspects, while CVLS obtains the requisite custody or guardianship orders in uncontested cases. Although these matters require one or two hearings once the courts reopen, the prep work can be done remotely. CVLS and NIJC are actively recruiting, organizing, and training a new cadre of attorneys to take on these cases.

Other Civil Matters

Their cases may be on hold, but their problems are not! CVLS has plenty of clients waiting for someone to help. This may include serving as a child representative or GAL; advocating for veterans in family, consumer, or housing cases; or fighting against powerful companies and agencies in chancery. Attorneys working remotely can interview, investigate, and draft while in quarantine and hit the ground running when the courts re-open. Even after the crisis abates, most litigation can now be done from a computer. (I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for mandatory e-filing!)

If you are interested in any of these opportunities or would like to brainstorm new initiatives, please contact me: mhulstein@cvls.org. The legal aid community will continue rolling out new remote pro bono opportunities as the shutdown continues.

We have to think big. Marginal adjustments will not be enough to meet our community’s looming needs. For example, this economic disaster will likely trigger more foreclosures than we saw after the 2008 collapse. Bold, creative, and compassionate solutions will be necessary, and we can start laying the groundwork now.

As we work to mitigate the legal effects of the crisis, we must do our part to slow the virus’s spread. Take social distancing seriously! Avoid the office, court, and clients. Wash your hands for 20 seconds every time you step into your home. And follow the recommendations of our experts and leaders.

Finally, practice diligent self-care. Attorneys are social creatures, and we are trained to think in worst case scenarios. That’s a dangerous combination in a quarantine. There are lots of resources out there about keeping yourself healthy and sane while working from home, so there is no need to repeat it here. On top of all that advice, be kind to yourself as you make the adjustment. There will be plenty of time to help others. First and foremost, take care of yourself. Your community will need you at your best.

Posted on March 23, 2020 by Rhys Saunders
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