Spotlight on Pro Bono: An Interview With Margaret Benson, Executive Director of CVLS
Bryan Thompson interviews Margaret Benson, the Executive Director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, about how attorneys can get involved even if they are busy, the advantage of the change to Rule 45 for remote hearings, and more.
Bryan Thompson - First of all, thanks for taking part in this interview. Could you please give me a little bit of background on yourself and how you started with CVLS?
Margaret Benson - I started with CVLS in 1982. I was hired as a staff attorney to run their newest program at the time which was the panel referral program. CVLS had always had clinics where attorneys helped clients in Chicago’s low-income communities. This was our business model.
Then, in 1982, CVLS, working with the Chicago Bar Association, developed the panel referral program as a way more attorneys could do pro bono. Instead of going out to clinic sites, attorneys could take pro bono cases referred to them by CVLS staff. We still have clinics, but the panel program was a new way to get more cases volunteers... I fell in love with CVLS pretty much right away.
I became deputy director, a few years later. We were small, with only 2 or 3 lawyers and a few support staff. I became executive director in 2003 when the executive director that I had worked under for nearly 20 years retired. I still love CVLS.
BT - Some attorneys shy away from pro bono, due to the potential time commitment, especially when it's taking on a specific pro bono court case. What would you say to a busy attorney who is interested in doing pro bono work, but who maybe wants to be able to limit their time to something manageable?
MB - Well, that's a great question. I will be honest, there are a lot more options for lawyers in the Chicago area. The best place to find what’s available is online. Go to the Chicago Bar Foundation’s website to check out pro bono opportunities. Their referral program guide is amazing because it breaks out pro bono opportunities by a variety of different ways. You can look up subject manner, so if you want to do debt collection, or you want to just help children, you can find those opportunities. It also breaks down pro bono by time commitment and many other ways. Prairie State, Land of Lincoln and PILI (public interest law initiative) have wonderful pro bono opportunities for downstate attorneys PILI offers diverse opportunities in various downstate counties and judicial districts. They also have a legal answers hotline where volunteer attorneys answer legal questions in areas of law they select in advance. ILAO has a legal answers website as well where people can email legal questions for pro bono attorneys to answer Many of these opportunities give attorneys control over their time—how often they can help and for how long. So the lack of time is never going to be an excuse to not do some pro bono. There's always something you can do.
BT - If somebody was interested in getting involved in CVLS. What do you think would be the easiest way for an attorney to get involved?
MB - The easiest way is to go onto our website. We hold a monthly orientation that you can do by Zoom. You can watch an orientation in your office, your kitchen, wherever you are. They are an hour long, held monthly and listed on our website. In the orientations, we will tell you about our various pro bono opportunities. You can take on certain types of cases. For example you can serve as a child representative or a guardian ad litem in Domestic Relations or Probate. There is also a tab on our website for volunteers that lists different types of cases or different types of volunteer opportunities and with general time commitments.
If you say “I'd love to represent kids in court, but I don't know how to do that”, we will train you. We have training programs for multiple areas of law that are online and in person. We have written materials and you will always have staff attorneys who are right there to help you if you have questions or just want someone to hold your hand in court. We do all that.
BT - The Illinois Supreme Court recently released changes to Rule 45 which states that most civil cases and hearings should default to remote-only hearings. Separately, we also hear a lot about how certain rural areas have a shortage of lawyers and how even urban areas like Chicago usually do not have enough pro bono attorneys, or have not have enough of the right type. As more courts move to Zoom, and attorneys can take pro bono cases outside their general geographic area, do you see a trend of making pro bono easier than before?
MB - I think it's wonderful. It’s much easier for our volunteers to appear by court these days by Zoom. It's not perfect and different courtrooms struggle, sometimes with the technology. Sometimes attorneys, have to sit in open court, for a long time as a judge struggles through a lot of self-represented individuals. It can be made better, but the courts seem to be doing their best to figure it all out.
Remote hearings are also better for our clients. They don’t have to take off of work, find child care, take the bus or drive into the Loop. It saves everyone a lot of time. It’s for our clients. It's better for our volunteers and judges are getting used to it.
BT - What do you think is in the biggest impediment towards getting more pro bono attorneys and what do you think could be done to improve it?
MB - That is a really good question and it’s not that easy to answer. One problem is the disparity in attorney population between the Cook/Collar counties and the rest of the state. Some counties or judicial circuits have only a handful of attorneys and a lot of lower-income people. The attorneys cannot do all the pro bono that’s necessary. Even if all of them handled pro bono cases, conflicts would be an issue. One attorney cannot represent both sides of an eviction dispute or both parents in a custody case.
Technology may help. As I’ve already said, remote court is helpful to our clients in Cook County. Imagine how much more helpful it could be if attorneys from all over the state could help clients in rural areas with few attorneys? It would still be difficult. Local rules can trip up even the most committed pro bono attorney, but remote options may, eventually, ease some of the geographic disparities that we have now. Spreading out the need is not a crazy idea and one that may someday come to pass.
Another impediment is fear or discomfort with the idea of doing something outside one’s comfort zone or helping someone different. CVLS and other organizations work very hard to let attorneys know someone always has their back in the pro bono world. We train attorneys as needed. More importantly, we are there to help. Attorneys can always reach out to a CVLS staff person and get whatever they need to help a pro bono client. Anytime.
Finally, sometimes attorneys aren’t thrilled with their work and don’t want to do it after hours. That’s too bad but pro bono can help. Even if you don’t enjoy practicing law, you might enjoy doing something different that makes a difference in a person’s life. Sometimes, the tiniest thing, like being available to answer a simple question, can make a positive difference. My advice, don’t knock it until you’ve tried. It.
BT - A lot of attorneys who have taken pro bono cases feel that taking the case has helped them as much as it helped the client. They get something out of it, maybe they'll learn new area of law or have a really fulfilling experience. Do you have any specific stories, either yourself or somebody else that you remember?
MB - Our volunteers often get thank you letters from clients they’ve helped. Many times, the clients comment on how grateful they are that the attorney listened to them and took them seriously. Our clients don’t normally have access to attorneys and are used to being blown off by people who hold power over them. The opportunity to sit in an attorney’s office, or speak via Zoom, to tell their story to a sympathetic, professional ear is huge. A win is icing on the cake.
One of our great volunteers, Caroline Schoenberger, recently served as pro bono guardian ad litem for an elderly man who did not want a guardian. The problem was, he lived alone in a home that needed repair and he had significant health problems. His family tried to help him, but his needs outweighed their abilities.
Although he initially resisted any oversight, Caroline patiently worked with him to find him help and to gain his trust. After two years, he agreed to a guardian and moved into an assisted living community. Although the case was challenging, she told us how good it felt to know that this man’s voice was heard, his safety protected and, most importantly, his dignity honored.
In another recent case, a long-time volunteered helped an 83-year-old woman whose $100 check to her cell phone carrier had been stolen and altered to $3,900. When the client reported the theft, the bank said it needed six months to investigate. The following Saturday, the woman went to her neighborhood church to meet with CVLS volunteer Jim Costello. Jim hit the ground running. He drafted a complaint alleging violations of the UCC and sent it to the bank’s investigator, noting that he intended to file it in a week. The next day, the client’s money was back in her account. She told Jim that she would keep him in her prayers at her weekly prayer group.
These are only two recent examples of the fulfilling work that pro bono provides. I know hundreds of similar stories and I hear about many more from other legal service organizations. Bottom line—pro bono gives every attorney the opportunity to feel good about their profession and their work.