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Bernard H. Shapiro awarded Joseph R. Bartylak Memorial Legal Services Award

Bernie Shapiro (center) receives the 2013 Bartylak Award from outgoing ISBA President John E. Thies and incoming ISBA President Paula H. Holderman.

Honored in recognition of his commitment to equal justice and exemplary career as a civil legal services attorney

By Wendy Vaughn, Clinical Assistant Professor,
NIU College of Law, Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic

During its 137th Annual Meeting, the Illinois State Bar Association awarded Bernard H. Shapiro with the Joseph R. Bartylak Memorial Legal Services Award at award luncheon on June 21, 2013.  For the last 35 years, Bernard H. Shapiro (Bernie) has dedicated his legal career and devoted his considerable intellect and legal acumen to meeting the basic needs of residents of Northern Illinois in his role as attorney, mentor, advocate, trainer, and Director of Litigation at Prairie State Legal Services (Prairie State). 

In her nomination letter, Sarah Megan, who also serves as Director of Litigation at Prairie State, writes that Bernie is “the lynchpin of our legal aid program,” “the soul of our organization,” and “a role model for not only all our staff, but for all legal aid staff.” Ms. Megan explains that Bernie’s fellow attorneys “rely on his superb legal analysis and strategy as well as his pragmatic problem solving skill.  We learn from his example of excellence; always focused on achieving our clients’ goals, providing our clients the highest caliber legal services in a most compassionate and respectful way.”

In May 2011, the Illinois State Bar Association Board of Governors’ created the Joseph R. Bartylak Memorial Legal Services Award (the Bartylak Award) to annually honor the extraordinary commitment and dedication of a civil legal services  attorney who has provided the highest caliber of compassionate legal representation and outstanding service to Illinois’ most vulnerable clients.  The Bartylak Award is granted each year in memory of Joseph R. Bartylak and in recognition of his life-long commitment to equal justice and his leadership in the provision of quality legal services to low-income residents of the State of Illinois. 

Joseph A. Dailing, the former Executive Director of Prairie State for 29 years, writes in his letter supporting the nomination of Bernard H. Shapiro for the Bartylak Award that “he can think of no more deserving attorney to receive this award” and that “like Joe Bartylak, Bernie has worked quietly and with little fanfare in defending the rights of low-income people. To this day, his passion and commitment to low-income clients and to the principle of equal access to justice are as strong as they were when he first came to Prairie State Legal Services.”

As Director of Litigation for the last 35 years, Bernie’s work at Prairie State has demonstrated his personal vision of the ethical and professional practice of law and his commitment to providing the highest quality of client-centered legal services to meet the most basic needs of low-income, vulnerable Illinois residents. Bernie’s career at Prairie State began in December 1977, shortly have the organization was created in October 1977. Before joining Prairie State, Bernie worked as a trial attorney for over five years in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice and as an attorney specializing in tax law for four years at the Chicago office of Mayer, Brown, & Platt.  

Throughout his career, Bernie has provided leadership and guidance to scores of civil legal services lawyers at Prairie State, as well as civil legal services and pro bono attorneys throughout the State of Illinois.  Bernie has taught and mentored hundreds of attorneys and generously shared his legal expertise while writing, reviewing, and supervising the production of more than 100 appellate briefs and participating at all levels of litigation and public policy advocacy.  Bernie has provided training to new and seasoned lawyers alike with thorough and insightful legal ethics presentations and interactive training programs designed by Bernie to further hone the attorneys’ case development skills, legal research abilities, negotiation skills, and their ability to conduct large scale litigation.  Joe Dailing writes that “Bernie has shaped a generation of lawyers and has inspired and instilled in these lawyers a keen sense of professionalism and a strong commitment to the principle of equal access to justice.”  Linda Rothnagel, Prairie State’s Director of Training Advocacy, writes that she is “one of a number of attorneys who consider Bernie not only to be their mentor, but believe that Bernie has been their guiding light and a critical force – if not the critical force – in shaping their legal careers.”  Ms. Rothnagel describes Bernie as “a masterful strategist” who has “one of the sharpest legal minds” she has encountered.  

It is impossible to fully describe the extent of Bernie’s extraordinary and successful legal advocacy on behalf of low-income, elderly and disabled clients or the many ways that Bernie has proven his dedication to the delivery of compassionate, high caliber legal services.  Bernie’s work has had a great impact not only individual clients but also groups of clients at risk of losing their personal safety, housing, public benefits, medical care, and other vital services.

During his career, Bernie has protected the rights of disabled persons to receive medically necessary services in the community, protected the rights of parents to care for their children, protected tenants from losing their housing, protected Illinois veterans from losing their VA disability benefits without due process, prevented school districts from expelling students without due process, protected welfare recipients form losing benefits due to arbitrary and unfair governmental practices, represented severely disabled young adults who were denied state funded medical assistance and home care when they turned 21 years old, sought to protect the safety of domestic violence survivors and their children, and led statewide litigation to establish basic due process requirements in the provision, denial and termination of general assistance in Illinois. Moreover, Bernie’s work has led to the creation of number of initiatives at Prairie State including a telephone advice and referral service, a low-income tax project, and the Illinois Help for Homeowners Project to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

In awarding the Joseph R. Bartylak Memorial Legal Services Award to Bernard Shapiro, the ISBA recognizes Bernie’ dedication and commitment to equal justice, as well as the impact of Bernie’s legal work on the provision of civil legal services and the protection of the needs of Illinois’ most vulnerable residents.  In her nomination letter, Sarah Megan writes that Bernie “truly embodies all of the qualities that you seek to honor in this award.”  Ms. Megan’s sentiments are shared by many including Karen I. Ward, Vice Preside for Public Policy and General Counsel, and Laura J. Miller, Managing Attorney of Civil Rights Team, for Equip for Equality who write in their letter of support that Bernie “represents the highest ideals of competence, integrity and commitment to the principle that all people have a right to high quality legal services.” 

In his letter of support, David Wolowitz, Prairie State’s Associate Director, writes that Bernie is the “most beloved member of our staff” and that “Bernie has the trust, respect and admiration of everyone that goes far beyond his legal victories.”  Mr. Wolowitz explains that “the combination of [Bernie’s] personal character, positive outlook, unparalleled judgment and critical thinking, hard work, focus, availability, open-mindedness, perseverance, and most important of all, his caring interest for the lives of our clients and the lives and professional development of our staff members is simply unmatched” and that he “can think of no single active, civil legal services deserving or more accomplished than Mr. Shapiro.”  The ISBA concurs and is grateful for the positive and lasting impact that Bernard H. Shapiro has had in the lives of so many vulnerable residents of Illinois.

Posted on June 27, 2013 by Chris Bonjean