Spotlight on Pro Bono: Prairie State Legal Services’ New Pro Bono Unit—an Interview With Kim Thielbar, Director of Pro Bono Services
by Mary F. Petruchius
Mary: Within the last couple of years, Prairie State Legal Services, Inc. has made some dramatic changes to its overall pro bono program and structure. Kim Thielbar, Prairie State’s Director of Pro Bono Services, heads up its new Pro Bono Unit. In this article, we’ll get to know Kim and what this new unit is all about, how it came into existence, and what Prairie State hopes to achieve with this innovative approach to pro bono client services.
Kim, it’s a pleasure to talk with you about this exciting new program but first, a little bit about you and your background with Prairie State. How long have you been with Prairie State and what are the various “hats” you have worn during your time with this great not-for-profit?
Kim: Thanks Mary, it’s great to talk to you. I started out as a Staff Attorney in Prairie State’s Rockford office in early 2013. After a couple of years, I was promoted to Managing Attorney of the Rockford office. In 2019, Prairie State received a Pro Bono Innovation Fund Grant from the Legal Services Corporation, which allowed us to create the Director of Pro Bono Services position. I moved into that position in the fall of 2019.
Mary: What are the various pro bono programs in each of Prairie State’s 11 offices and how is the Pro Bono Unit’s program different from all the others?
Kim: Historically, each of Prairie State’s regional offices has run its own pro bono program. There was generally not much communication or cooperation among the offices. That meant that each office decided which types of cases to send to volunteers, with most offices focusing on referring out simple or uncontested divorce cases. This model has served Prairie State and our clients well for almost 40 years, and still has many benefits.
However, we increasingly realized that, under the local office model, our programs did not always run in the most efficient way possible, with some offices performing better than others and no real way to replicate the success of one office in another location. We also realized that the vast majority of registered attorneys in our service area are located in the collar counties around Chicago, but the offices that were doing the most pro bono were often our “downstate” offices where there were significantly fewer attorneys. We wanted to find ways to increase the involvement of attorneys in the collar counties and generally grow our pro bono program throughout Prairie State.
That’s where the Pro Bono Unit comes in. The Pro Bono Unit is a centralized group, working throughout Prairie State. We are looking more at the “bigger picture” and how we can create pro bono projects that will help spread the resources and serve clients anywhere in our service area. Each office still has a pro bono coordinator referring out local cases to local volunteer attorneys but, in addition to creating our own projects, the Pro Bono Unit hopes to act as a sort of “clearinghouse” to help the local offices grow their programs and replicate successes from one office to another.
Mary: Please give our readers the history of the creation of the Pro Bono Unit. Did you research models of similar programs across the country in developing Prairie State’s program?
Kim: As I mentioned, in 2019, we received a Pro Bono Innovation Fund (PBIF) grant from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). There are several types of PBIF grants, but the one we received is called a “Transformation” grant. As the name suggests, the purpose of the grant is to help the organization transform the way we structure our pro bono program. This grant gave us the opportunity to take an in-depth look at our pro bono programs in each office, connect with organizations facing similar challenges, and create a plan to transform and modernize our program. Through that process, I conducted an extensive evaluation of what Prairie State’s pro bono programs looked like in each office, identifying the main challenges facing pro bono at Prairie State, and some potential areas of opportunity for growth.
I also spoke with several other similar organizations about their pro bono structure, what worked well, and what challenges they faced. Based on all of that information, we determined that the best way to incorporate some of the successful strategies from other organizations and address the challenges Prairie State faced was to create a centralized Pro Bono Unit.
Mary: Can you give us a description of the structure of the unit? Who staffs the unit and what are the roles and assignments of the members of the unit?
Kim: The unit is composed of myself, Sally Steele, our Pro Bono Manager, Alicia Rodriguez, the Pro Bono Administrative Assistant, and Wendy Crouch and yourself, the Pro Bono Project Leads. We are currently in the process of hiring a third Project Lead.
The Project Leads are responsible for helping to create and run different pro bono projects across our service area. Sally and I work with the project leads to come up with the project design and implementation, and then the project leads take over the day to day operations of the project. For example, we currently have an eviction project, in which attorneys from anywhere in our service area assist clients by phone to negotiate with their landlords if they are facing possible eviction. Sally and I helped to design and launch this project and Wendy, the Project Lead, now runs the project, finding a volunteer for each client, ensuring we get the necessary paperwork, and directing the volunteers to resources and people within Prairie State who can help answer any questions or provide whatever support the volunteers need.
Mary: Does the Pro Bono Unit have any current projects that it's working on and are there any in the “hopper?”
Kim: We are currently running the eviction project, which I described above. We are still working on fully staffing our unit so, as the unit grows, we will continue adding more projects. The next project we plan to roll out is a family law project, which will likely focus on providing advice and assistance to self-represented litigants. In the next few months, we also plan to develop a wills and powers of attorney project. In addition to these projects, the Pro Bono Unit is also assisting several of the local offices with their larger pro bono events. For example, the Pro Bono Unit assisted the West Suburban office with an Expungement Clinic in the fall, and this spring will help the Rockford office with its annual Second Chances Summit.
Mary: What future projects do you hope to create and implement?
Kim: We are continuously brainstorming new ideas for possible projects, based upon areas we see of great client need. We hope to come up with a more centralized approach to involving pro bono attorneys in our criminal records sealing and expungement work. We are also considering creating a gender affirming name and gender marker change project.
Mary: What are the long-term goals and objectives of the unit?
Kim: We hope to expand Prairie State’s ability to serve clients by increasing pro bono throughout Prairie State’s service area, both in terms of the number of clients served, and the number of attorneys volunteering. We also want to streamline many of our pro bono processes throughout Prairie State, making the job of the local coordinators easier so that they have more time to place clients with volunteer attorneys.
Mary: Kim, thanks so much for sharing your time with us. Any final comments for our readers?
Kim: Thanks for highlighting pro bono at Prairie State! If anyone is interested in volunteering, or has ideas for new projects, feel free to reach out, we’d love to hear from you!
Mary: Kim, can you please tell our readers how to contact Prairie State to volunteer or submit ideas for future projects?
Kim: They can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary F. Petruchius is the Pro Bono Project Lead for Prairie State Legal Services’ West Suburban Office. Mary is a current member of the ISBA Standing Committee on CLE and is that committee’s CLE Liaison to the Business & Securities Law Section Council. She is also a member of and the CLE Committee Liaison for the Human & Civil Rights Section Council and the Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services. Mary is an Illinois Bar Foundation Diamond Champion. She may be reached at email@example.com.