Improving the Pro Bono Experience in Federal Court

Federal court may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of pro se litigants, but every year, hundreds of people without lawyers file cases in the Northern District of Illinois. The vast majority of those cases are filed by prisoners seeking relief from allegedly substandard conditions or poor treatment in their confinement. Many other cases are filed by people who believe they have experienced employment or disability discrimination. And others allege a violation of a wide variety of other federal rights. Navigating the federal courts and federal laws without a lawyer is just as challenging as navigating the state courts, however, and many people need the help of a pro bono attorney to make it through the process.

Seeing many of the same challenges the state courts face, Chief Judge Ruben Castillo launched a Pro Bono Advisory Committee for the Northern District in 2014 and appointed CBF Executive Director Bob Glaves as Chair. Other members of the Committee include law firm representatives, legal aid attorneys, other federal court practitioners, federal judges, and court professionals. The CBF has provided staff support for the Committee from its inception.

Over the last few years, the Committee has met regularly to identify and implement rule changes and to develop new procedures to improve and streamline the pro bono recruitment process in the Northern District. These changes have allowed for a more equitable distribution of pro bono work among the members of the District Court’s Trial Bar and have provided new opportunities for attorneys to access training, support, and reimbursement for litigation-related costs.

One of the Committee’s rule changes also offered a way for Trial Bar members to provide pro bono service in more predictable, time-bound ways through the Court’s Bankruptcy Help Desk, William J. Hibbler Pro Se Assistance Program, and Settlement Assistance Program. Most recently, the Committee has worked with the Court to update its website to include information about the various pro bono programs, rules, and helpful resources for pro bono attorneys. With the help of the Pro Bono Advisory Committee, the Northern District has become a national leader in offering pro bono help to people without lawyers.