The career of Lois Wood
Ms. Lois Wood has had a distinguished legal career and continues to make positive impacts in the legal profession. Ms. Lois Wood is a woman worth recognizing, and her devotion to improving access to legal counsel in Illinois is worth celebrating. Ms. Wood acted as the executive director of The Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Inc., which strives to provide free legal services to qualified residents of Illinois in order to help them achieve “their basic human needs,” from 2004 to 2017, when she recently retired. Her devotion to this cause can be traced back to her legal education.
Ms. Lois Wood says she went to law school to “find a way to make an impact on the world and improve people’s lives.” Her first year of law school she didn’t know how she would use her legal education to make that goal a reality, but by luck of the lottery, she was accepted to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau during her second year. She served her first client within weeks of becoming involved with the Bureau in a housing case, and she knew then that this was exactly what her calling was. Ms. Lois Wood became committed to making legal counsel more accessible in 1972, as she served on the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. She acted as president in 1973, and remained on the Bureau until 1974 when she graduated from Harvard Law School with cum laude honors. As a member and president of the Bureau she committed substantial amounts of time to the legal clinic that represented Boston people in civil court, while her goal of making an impact became actualized for the first time in her career that would be devoted to making legal assistance more accessible.
After graduation, Ms. Wood began her career in the East St. Louis office of The Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation as a staff attorney in 1974. Her caseload was primarily public utility and public housing law. Public housing made up 25% of housing in East St. Louis at the time, and there was a demand for this type of legal aid. During her first year of practice she was recognized for her legal services by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois and given the Attorney Recognition Award.
After only four years at the office, she was promoted to Managing Attorney of the East St. Louis office. In this position, she continued to provide accessible legal counsel to the surrounding area by supervising staff and managing an office that provided a full range of civil legal services to the low-income and elderly residents of the surrounding seven counties. Ms. Wood engaged in and oversaw both individual and class action litigation concerning issues of housing, community groups, and economic development of the area.
As managing attorney, she discovered an enormous scam in the East St. Louis housing market—predatory lending. Ms. Wood accepted many clients who fell victim to these predatory practices and fought foreclosures they were facing so that they could remain in their homes. She also relayed the work she was doing and evidence she was finding to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office. Eventually, with their own work as well as Ms. Wood’s contributions, the FBI obtained a search warrant for the man who was engaging in predatory lending. When they found him, he had $1 million in cashier checks on him that were seized and used for restitution purposes and given to Land of Lincoln clients. Ms. Wood describes this story as some of her most important work, and a moment of justice that is a reminder of why she has committed herself to accessible legal aid.
When asked about her proudest moment of her career, Ms. Wood told the story about her success in the East. St. Louis public housing while she worked as a managing attorney at Land of Lincoln. The public housing authority declined for years, the president was imprisoned for embezzlement, and the public housing faced being abandoned. This would leave many homeless. Ms. Wood knew that she couldn’t allow the public housing to collapse, and pioneered a groundbreaking lawsuit unlike any that had occurred before. Ms. Wood, with Land of Lincoln, filed suit in federal court against East St. Louis Housing Authority and United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), demanding that they had an obligation to take over the housing authority and fix it. The suit ended with HUD putting over $150 million into the East St. Louis public housing authority. They demolished dilapidated housing, repaired what they could, and rebuilt. This was an enormously successful initiative that took innovation and courage for Ms. Wood to launch, and which allowed for so many people of St. Louis to live in accessible, comfortable housing.
During her years as managing attorney she continued to be recognized for her excellent work by legal foundations, receiving the Chief Judge Richard A. Hudlin IV Memorial Award for community service and professionalism in 2002, as well as Kutak-Dodds Prize in 2003. This national award was presented to her by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the Robert J. Kutak Foundation, for her advocacy on behalf of the poor, and was accompanied by a $10,000 award.
From 1986 to 1996 she took on an additional project, a joint collaboration between The Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation and Prairie State Legal Services, where she served as an attorney at The Illinois Family Farm Law Project. The goal of this project was protecting small farmers from losing their farms during a time of sky-rocketing interest rates.
In 2004, Ms. Wood accepted the position of Executive Director of The Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. She worked as executive director for 13 years until her recent retirement. Ms. Wood described a day as an executive director as, “something different happening all the time.” A day could start with working on a grant application, to guiding a staff attorney over the phone on the best course of action, to talking to board members about complying with reports for the corporation’s donors. The job was largely administrative, but Ms. Wood thrived in the fast-paced, multi-faceted position. She managed five regions that included five regional offices, their satellite offices, 55 attorneys, and around 40 other employees.
Ms. Wood’s devotion to The Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation has made civil legal services more accessible to low-income and elderly citizens of Illinois, made advancements in fair housing for consumers, advocated for victims of domestic violence, and promoted easier access to healthcare. Ms. Wood has worked tirelessly and passionately in order to produce more accessible civil legal counsel to the elderly and low-income residents of Illinois. Her work has improved the lives of many, and it has not gone unnoticed. She has been recognized by the Illinois State Bar Association for exemplifying the standards of the legal profession, the NAACP for outstanding community service, the St. Louis University School of Law for public interest advocacy, and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois for her life-long commitment to accessible legal services.
Ms. Lois Wood has recently retired from practice, but her years of dedication to The Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation has created a lasting impact for the elderly and low-income residents of Illinois. She has dedicated 45 years of her life to improving the accessibility of legal assistance to those in need, and undoubtedly touched the lives of many throughout her labor. Thank you, Ms. Lois Wood for your devotion to serving Illinois during your outstanding legal career.