This month I hope to remind readers that, in addition to fulfilling ethical obligations, the act of performing pro bono work can be deeply satisfying and meaningful to the attorney who lends a hand. Those of us who have earned the title “attorney at law” have the power to effect change and improve a client’s life in ways that are beyond the reach of others. We alone hold the keys to the system of laws and justice. Most lawyers entered the profession because of a desire to make this world a better place, and providing pro bono assistance to a low-income client provides a very tangible means to do just that.
Legal aid agencies throughout the state provide many opportunities to match your skills with a client in need. Many programs will provide you with training, mentoring, or other assistance to enable you to handle legal issues that require specialized skills or are unique to the poor. Often however, the cases will be simple and routine, yet the successful resolution can have a dramatic impact on the client. Consider:
-Attorney Robert Park of Rock Island often takes cases involving simple, uncontested divorces. Sometimes the couple has been separated for years, but securing a divorce is vital so that they can obtain a pension, gain custody of a child, settle an estate or clear other hurdles. “This was a way that I could use my legal skills to help people who are less fortunate, and might not otherwise have access to the justice system” said Mr. Park.
-Attorney Dan Deneen of Bloomington recently helped an elderly woman who had cosigned a loan so her grandson’s wife could get a car. The wife soon defaulted on the loan and the client found herself dealing with debt collectors. With a very small income, she could not afford the car payments and the insurance. Mr. Deneen was able to retrieve the car from the grandson’s wife and work with the dealer to get it sold, removing the financial burden from his client. “You shouldn’t be an attorney if you don’t want to promote justice” said Mr. Deneen. “And to promote justice is not just for the people who can afford an attorney.”
Attorney Michael A. Smith of Wheaton volunteers in the St. Charles Prairie State Legal Services office, conducting intake interviews and providing advice and brief service to clients. This work provides access to clients who would otherwise be turned away because of lack of staff in the legal aid office. Mike wrote an article in the October 2010 Kane County Bar newsletter, Bar Briefs, describing his pro bono experience, concluding “The personal rewards from this work have been more than sufficient compensation to me.”
Your help is needed now more than ever. Programs around the State that provide civil legal aid to the poor are overwhelmed by the demand. The poor economy has forced many Illinoisans into poverty, and many formerly middle class citizens now find themselves dealing with legal issues such as foreclosure, debt collection, and the need to apply for unemployment compensation and public benefits for the first time in their life. In addition, financial pressures cause more families to splinter, increasing the need in areas such as divorce and protection from domestic violence. Unfortunately, the increase in the need for legal help comes at the same time that financial resources for legal services are plummeting. Historically low interest rates have decreased the ability of the Lawyers Trust Fund to support legal aid. Federal, state and local funding for legal aid and many other social services is declining as the recession takes its toll. Thus, the need for pro bono has never been greater. Contact the legal aid program in your community, and offer a hand. You can find your local program and learn about opportunities to help at IllinoisProBono.org.