About the ISBA

Profiles in Pro Bono Excellence: Where are they now

By Mara Block

Each year the ISBA's Delivery of Legal Services committee solicits nominations for the John C. McAndrews Pro Bono Service Award. The award is named in memory of Rock Island attorney John McAndrews, who chaired the ISBA Committee on Delivery of Legal Services and is given to individual lawyers, law firms and corporate law departments, and bar associations each year who exhibit the highest degree of commitment and professionalism to the profession through their pro bono service.

The Committee has granted this award, previously named the Pro Bono Service Award, for over 20 years. The list of recipients includes individuals and law firms from across the state of Illinois that have contributed their time, talent and efforts to helping low income individuals get the same access to the court systems as those who are more resourced.

In light of the recent call for nominations for the Award, the committee wanted to go back to some of the early recipients and see what they are up to. Have they continued to be involved in pro bono work? Where have their careers taken them? What impact has doing pro bono had on their careers? 

Gretchen E. Fisher, an attorney in Libertyville, received the Pro Bono Service Award in 1994. Ms. Fisher started her law career as a legal services attorney at Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS). She left PSLS after three years to join a small firm. While there, she continued her relationship with PSLS by referring cases to private attorneys that PSLS couldn't take due to conflicts of interest. The majority of the cases were family law cases and she devoted a huge amount of time to making sure those individuals would be represented. That was the work that got her nominated for, and ultimately awarded, the Pro Bono Service Award.

But her pro bono involvement didn't stop when the plaque assumed its place on the mantle. Almost twenty years later, Ms. Fisher continues to take family law pro bono cases from the Lake County Volunteer Lawyers' Program. And she raises money for legal services programs in Lake County.

When asked about memorable pro bono experiences, she referenced a client she represented who was a Section 8 voucher-holder whose landlord was charging her illegal side payments on top of her normal rent. Ms. Fisher filed a law suit on behalf of her client against the landlord. Although the landlord evaded service, when they finally did get him personally served, the case settled within two weeks and her client was paid back everything that they asked for, plus attorneys' fees. As Ms. Fisher said, "[We] got the bad guy."

Randy Rapp received the award in 1993 for his involvement in what was then known as the Midwest Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), now known as the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). Today, Mr. Rapp is an attorney at the general commercial practice Kozacky & Weitzel, P.C. in Chicago also serves as a mediator and arbitrator.

Mr. Rapp's work with NIJC has involved representation of multiple immigrants to the United States seeking political asylum. He became interested in the issue of political asylum in law school at the University of Iowa when he clerked for Professor Berns Weston. Out of law school he joined the human rights committees of the Chicago Bar Association and the American Bar Association where he and a group of colleagues represented the 60 or 70 asylees that had come from Haiti, via Florida, in 1976.

He has had many memorable cases, but in one particularly memorable case he represented a torture survivor from El Salvador. On the day of hearing, Mr. Rapp presented expert testimony that graphically detailed the nature of the torture that Mr. Rapps's client and her daughter experienced in their home country. That testimony was so compelling that the Immigration Judge granted all his client's remedies from the bench, a highly unusual outcome, according to Mr. Rapp.

Over the course of his career he has personally represented more than a dozen individuals, some for as long as 20 years, but his work has had a spider effect as he has encouraged his colleagues and partners to get involved with NIJC and has supervised their work.

Deborah Goldberg received the Pro Bono Service Award in 1995. Ms. Goldberg is an attorney in Waukegan and is the self-styled "Pro Bono Queen of Lake County." Ms. Goldberg starting doing pro bono work out of necessity – she was just out of law school and needed experience. She went to Prairie State and got "real life experience" there. She has been doing pro bono work ever since.

Ms. Goldberg recognizes that she lives a "charmed life." And it is her duty to give back. She says, "It's the right thing to do." And she has continued to do so throughout her career, representing Spanish-speaking clients in mostly family law matters.

But beyond her own cases, she has dedicated herself to encouraging younger attorneys to do pro bono. Her best tactic for recruiting? "Guilt," she says, jokingly. But she also reminds newer attorneys that they can get mentorship and training while working on pro bono cases and also that pro bono cases can lead to paid business.

As for her most memorable case, it was at the very beginning of her career, more than 20 years ago. Goldberg represented a client who was dying of AIDS. The client needed to add an addendum to her will that included testamentary guardianship for her children. Goldberg went to her home to have her sign the will. Her client died a week later. What sticks in her mind about that case is the impact she had on her client, despite the fact hat it wasn't that time consuming or difficult. But it helped her client in her last days to know that her children would be taken care of in the way that she wanted after her death. 

While Rapp, Goldberg and Fisher are unique in their pro bono interests and motivations, there are threads that connect them all. Each has done pro bono throughout their careers – getting involved right out of law school and continuing to be involved. All three have found immense personal satisfaction in representing pro bono clients. And each of them have had significant impacts on their community, both through their direct representation of low income and disadvantages individuals, but also as leaders in their networks by supporting the work of legal services agencies and providing encouragement to other lawyers who are just starting their pro bono practice.

Many thanks are owed to Rapp, Goldberg and Fisher, to the dozens of other award winners over the years, and to the countless attorneys across the state of Illinois who take on pro bono matters without recognition.

Nominations for the John C. McAndrews Pro Bono Service Award are due March 15, 2013, and information can be found at: http://www.isba.org/awards/mcandrews