Spotlight on Pro Bono: Volunteer with the Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, Inc.
By Clarissa Gaff, Executive Director of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid
East St. Louis, IL, has raised some remarkable Illinoisans—nay, some remarkable Americans: Katherine Dunham, Miles Davis, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Jimmy Connors, and Senator Dick Durbin, to name a few. It is a tight-knit community of nearly 20,000, with a rich history. It is also a community that is incredibly challenged, haunted by a race massacre, white flight, and industry abandonment and pollution from its heyday. More than a third of residents live in poverty. A full quarter of its residents live in aging subsidized housing.
Studies show that 92% of low-income households faced a civil legal problem last year and received little or no legal help. Thus, nearly a third of East St. Louis residents faced a legal problem or multiple legal problems last year alone. Because of this, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, Inc. (LOLLA) launched its Justice in Schools Project (JSP) in late 2022, partnering with the East St. Louis School District 189, which serves 5,000 students and their families. JSP is a partnership between LOLLA, the District, and pro bono attorneys and paralegals to address the civil legal needs of the District’s families.
LOLLA is working with the District’s Family and Community Engagement (FACE) Center and its school-based social-emotional learning team comprised of 20+ social workers, school nurses, truancy staff, social emotional specialists, and its family engagement specialists. The team has been trained by LOLLA on how to identify legal problems facing families and how to make direct referrals to LOLLA. LOLLA’s dedicated JSP staff, including an attorney, paralegal, and case worker, are also working with the District to ensure that all families are aware of LOLLA services. LOLLA has attended a variety of outreach events, from PTO meetings to senior basketball night. Its staff maintains regular office hours at the alternative high school.
LOLLA senior staff attorney, Julie Poplstein, spearheads the JSP’s pro bono arm. She recruits law firms to volunteer with the project and coordinates training and CLE for pro bono attorneys and paralegals. Volunteers receive CLE in substantive areas of law, as well as training that creates cultural competency to foster understanding of the lives and needs of low-income Illinoisans. She ensures that pro bono attorneys are matched with suitable pro bono projects, from bite-sized opportunities to litigated cases. Poplstein may co-counsel with pro bono attorneys if they are new to litigation or a particular area of law.
Poplstein said, “Many law firms strongly encourage their staff to do pro bono, but it can be tough for their staff to find the right opportunities. Their staff may travel a lot for work, or are raising young kids, or have never seen the inside of a courtroom. I love working with law firms to identify ways they can help students’ families and find joy in pro bono work without creating additional stress in their lives.”
One of the first pro bono opportunities JSP launched was an expungement clinic last month. The event was advertised to students’ families through flyers and more than 60 individuals showed up at the F.A.C.E Center on the afternoon of March 13, 2023, seeking assistance. LOLLA staff performed intakes and provided a cursory legal analysis.
On April 3, 2023, attorneys and paralegals from Wells Fargo Advisors, Sandberg Phoenix, and Greensfelder Hemker & Gale PC , who were early signatories to JSP, received training on several topics, including criminal record clearing and cultural competency. After the training, each attorney will be assigned two clients from the F.A.C.E Center clinic and will work on evaluating their criminal records and preparing pleadings. Pro Bono attorneys will meet with their clients on May 3, 2023, sign documents, and thereafter file the pleadings.
Megan Kinney, Managing Attorney of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid’s Central Regional Office in East St. Louis is pleased to have pro bono attorneys who are willing to assist District 189 families. “Our office handles thousands of cases a year and we still have to turn away thousands of folks who need our help. We’re grateful that firms and their attorneys are stepping up to meet our community’s needs and provide free legal services.”
Poplstein and Kinney are working on expanding pro bono assistance in the District and are creating new opportunities and connecting clients with pro bono attorneys. If you or your firm is interested in being part of the Justice In School’s Project, contact Julie Poplstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.