April 2023Volume 111Number 4Page 10

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President’s Page

It’s All About Access—and Innovation

The ISBA moves forward on initiatives addressing access-to-justice barriers in Illinois’ rural and urban areas.

Rory T. Weiler

As I began my presidency back in July of last year, I stressed my belief that one of the main issues facing our profession in general and the ISBA in particular is the lack of access to legal services by a great many of our citizens. Most of you know that the ISBA’s very successful Rural Practice Initiative (RPI) was an initial step in addressing the dearth of affordable legal services in rural “legal deserts” throughout Illinois.

The RPI continues to attempt to address the legal needs in these deserts. Recently, former Board of Governors member Angel Warzynek, with her committee, led an ISBA “listening tour” in some of these communities. It was the committee’s charge to solicit comments from lawyers in underserved areas as to how the ISBA could better assist them in their practices. I was honored to be able to attend several of these meetings and hear firsthand the challenges facing our downstate practitioners and their thoughts as to how and in what fashion the ISBA could help.

Rural and urban access-to-justice challenges

While we await the full report from Angel and her committee, I’m pleased to announce additional progress being made in extending our access-to-justice efforts to Illinois’ underserved urban areas. It was my original intention to create a separate committee to begin work on what was preliminarily called the Underserved Communities Initiative. First, we decided that it was important to talk to the “boots on the ground”: legal-aid leaders throughout the state. This January, we invited leaders of legal aid organizations to discuss daily issues they face and how ISBA’s new initiative could work with them and create more and better opportunities for Illinoisans with limited access to legal services.

That meeting was not only productive but eye opening, in that it became clear that there were so many more issues and nuances to the access-to-justice conundrum than we had imagined. The outcome of the meeting was to change our views of potential solutions to the problems and how the ISBA can best work with our partners in the legal-aid community.

Following our meeting, Teri Ross of Illinois Legal Aid Online provided a detailed summary of what we discussed. Using that summary, ISBA General Counsel Charles Northrup drafted what will become ISBA’s action plan. Initially, rather than creating a separate committee to explore the access-to-justice issues in our underserved urban communities, the ISBA’s Delivery of Legal Services (DLS) Committee will be assigned the task of assisting ISBA leaders in developing meaningful and sustainable approaches to improving access to legal services. Since the input of both bench and bar are critical to these conversations, Cook County Judge Patrice Ball-Reed, our Bench and Bar Section’s access to justice chair, will serve as liaison to the DLS Committee on these issues.

The DLS Committee will focus on the following areas:

  • how the bar can assist legal-service organizations in recruiting and retaining public-interest lawyers;
  • how the bar and the judiciary can better understand and utilize limited-scope representation of clients;
  • how the bar can improve pro-bono services;
  • how to better utilize technology to improve access to legal services in Illinois; and
  • whether to hold a legal services symposium to encourage conversations within the legal community concerning access to legal services.

Putting pieces in place

ISBA staff and leadership met in February to discuss and approve the framework outlined by Mr. Northrup and tasked the DLS Committee to begin its work. By the time you read this, initial meetings will have already taken place and the hard work of developing real-world solutions will have begun. Although this project will not be completed before my term ends this June, I can assure you that our officers and leadership are committed to seeing this through to fruition. Efforts by DLS and others will continue until we Illinois lawyers and judges have developed answers to legal-services challenges that confront us.

We also look forward to working with the Illinois Supreme Court, the Court’s Commission on Professionalism, and other stakeholders as we develop solutions addressing the provision of legal services by—or under the supervision of—lawyers. It is my personal belief that doing so will benefit those who need, but cannot afford or lack access to, legal services. Developing new and creative ways to connect clients with lawyers will serve to maintain and strengthen the integrity of our judicial system and benefit our members (let alone the entire legal system) as well.

In my October 2022 President’s column, I stated my belief that it is incumbent upon lawyers to be innovators of real solutions and address the legal needs of all Illinoisans. I pledged that the ISBA will be at the forefront of exploring practical and innovative ways to address access-to-justice issues. I believe this is one small step toward fulfilling that pledge.

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