Leading the Way to a Justice System that Works for Everyone

Justice is a simple concept. Even very young children understand the basic concept of fairness. But getting to justice can be anything but simple. Ensuring that everyone has equal access to the justice system is a fight that happens on many fronts—from the courts to the pro bono and legal aid organizations, law firms and corporations to all levels of government. There is no cure-all to be found in any one of these places, but concerted efforts in all of them moves us toward a more user-friendly, fair and accessible justice system. With so many moving pieces, though, change will not happen on its own—there needs to be coordination, partnership and leadership.

As the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association, the CBF has always been in a unique position in the legal community. This position has allowed us over the years to establish partnerships and trust with all the access to justice stakeholders in the Chicago area. Those partnerships, in turn, have afforded us a unique vantage point from which to address the larger systemic issues impacting access to justice. Over the course of our 70-year history, the CBF has grown into the role of true community leader on these issues.

From its early days, the CBF has provided early, critical support to many of the outstanding pro bono and legal aid organizations in our community today, sometimes even playing a role in the organization’s creation itself. Illinois Legal Aid Online is one example where the CBF, along with other partners, saw an opportunity to meet an evolving need and brought together the right people to develop a project that could capitalize on that opportunity.

That sort of flexibility has allowed the CBF to act as a leader and organizer when it comes to times of crises and emerging issues involving access to justice. The swelling numbers of homeowners facing foreclosure in the wake of the 2008 housing collapse and coordinated efforts around the quickly-changing immigration legal landscape are two prime examples.

More of a slow-moving crisis, the explosion of unrepresented people in the courts is another issue where the CBF is surveying the whole system and finding ways that challenges and opportunities can work together. Along with many partners, the CBF is leading efforts to simplify the court system and evaluate and improve services for the growing number of people without lawyers. From championing plain language in the laws and standardized forms in the courts to creating the Resource Center for People without Lawyers, launching and expanding the Illinois JusticeCorps program to finding ways to incorporate technology responsibly, the CBF is a consistent and strong advocacy voice in the courts. We are helping to shape a future where the courts are a place everyone can seek justice, not just people who can afford full legal representation.

One of the most visible examples of the CBF’s community leadership is the Investing in Justice Campaign, through which the Chicago-area legal community—law firms of all sizes, in-house counsel, and other organizations with ties to the legal community—comes together to support the entire pro bono and legal aid community. The support for those organizations also extends from Chicago to Springfield to Washington, D.C., where the CBF leads the way on advocating for legal aid funding at all levels of government and student debt reform for those in public service.

Part of a leader’s job is to look ahead, envision what the future could be, and try to shape that future. For the CBF, this means thinking about what true equal access to justice would look like and what innovations are needed to move us in that direction. The Justice Entrepreneurs Project reimagines what the practice of law needs to be to make legal services affordable and accessible to many middle-income people now shut out of the traditional legal model. Sharing the successful and replicable practice models developed at the JEP is an equally important goal, bringing these innovations to the broader legal community. Beyond the JEP, the CBF is deeply invested in examining how technology can be harnessed to make the justice system work better for everyone, an aspect that touches all the different efforts to improve access to justice.

There is no single or easy solution that will get us to equal access to justice. Simplifying the process of going to court, getting pro bono and legal aid organizations the resources to serve as many clients as possible, supporting the legal aid attorneys serving those clients, maximizing opportunities for pro bono attorneys, and expanding efforts to make legal services more affordable, flexible and accessible to people who need it are all part of the equation. But it will take coordination, creativity, strategy, diplomacy and, most of all, leadership.

All of these efforts begin with leadership. But they end in community—a legal community working together and committed to a better future for everyone. Amidst the details of the work, we also shouldn’t forget the most important kind of community in all of this—the community of families and neighbors who depend on legal assistance for their safety and wellbeing. Everyone in the Chicago area who gets to keep their home rather than being wrongfully foreclosed upon, or gets a second chance through expungement, or finds safety from domestic violence, and so many others. This is the community that deserves a justice system that works for everyone.

Leadership and community. We’re committed to bringing both to the next 70 years.