A Lawyer and a Priest’s Vision for Justice

May 17, 2016
CLC Director Ed Grossman pictured with the Carver Military Academy Mock Trial Teams

CLC Director Ed Grossman pictured with the Carver Military Academy Mock Trial Teams

After graduating from DePaul’s law school together in the early 1980’s, Ed Grossman and Bishop Thomas Paprocki (then a full-time parish priest) embarked on a mission to provide accessible and affordable legal services to the South Chicago community, which was suffering amidst the decline of the steel industry that had been the community’s economic anchor for decades.

The classmates adopted a sliding scale model for their organization so that they could provide services both for people who could afford to pay something and for those who couldn’t afford to pay anything.

At the time, Ed was a 24-year-old fresh-faced attorney and aspired to serve 300 people a year. Flash forward 35 years, and the organization, now known as the Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC), has some years served upwards of 40,000 people a year across dozens of Chicago communities.

I told Tom at the time, I’ll do this €˜til I get a real job or €˜til I’m about 60, and I will be 60 next January, said Ed, who was awarded the prestigious Justice John Paul Stevens Award in 2015. I never envisioned it to be on the grand scale that it is now.

CLC is one of the many outstanding organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, but its history with the CBF started long before the Campaign began. Ed considers the CBF to be the clinic’s first significant donor, as just a year into the project, the Clinic received a CBF grant for $10,000 that changed the game. Ed adds, If we hadn’t gotten that grant, I think the whole thing would have fallen apart. The Bar has been a steadfast and significant partner of the Clinic the whole way along.

Over the years, through mergers, opportunities, and a bit of luck, CLC has grown from a single attorney in a small storefront office to a major provider of low-cost or free legal assistance with downtown headquarters, three satellite offices, and several court-based advice desks. It serves low- and moderate-income people in several areas of law, with concentrations in family, consumer, housing, and immigration issues, and it does so through niche programs and partnerships with other nonprofits. One example of these successful partnerships is the Cook County Circuit Court Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Project, where the CLC works with the CBF, the Court and other partners to help people facing foreclosure resolve their cases in the most fair and effective manner possible.

What distinguishes CLC from most other legal aid programs is its ability to serve the segment of the population that earns too much to qualify for free legal aid yet can’t afford traditional legal services. It is also the only full-time legal aid organization with offices on the far south and west sides of the city, which are the neighborhoods most impacted by poverty. Given its amount of impact with its modest budget, it’s easy to see why Chicago Magazine listed the Clinic among the top 20 standout nonprofits in Chicago in 2015.

Ed credits a talented and dedicated staff for furthering the Clinic’s mission over the years, highlighting some influential attorneys whose work has been years ahead of their time. Current Deputy Director Marta Bukata, hired in 1986, was instrumental in having the courts focus on children, including the establishment of a child representative program at the Circuit Court of Cook County. Ed and Marta are both previous recipients of the CBF Morsch Public Service Award.

CLC is also among the first in the country to have an urban environmental law program, which is headed by Keith Harley, also an adjunct law professor at Chicago-Kent and Northwestern. Back in the mid-80s, Keith saw environmental issues as social justice issues, and created an array of legal services to address pollution. He was one of the chief architects of a plan in which the Chicago Housing Authority committed millions of dollars to remediate lead in public housing back in 1994. He has also helped shut down certain coal fire plants causing tremendous pollution in minority and poor communities, and has been involved in stopping the establishment of incinerators in impoverished areas.

A recent CLC victory comes not from a legal battle, but from coaching a mock trial team at Carver Military Academy. The students won the city-wide 2016 Chicago Coalition for Law-Related Education Mock Trial Competition, and for the second time in three years. The Clinic’s attorneys cherish the opportunity to make a positive impact on youth and to change their perception of the law in communities where that relationship may be hostile.

Although the landscape of legal aid and pro bono has changed significantly since Ed and Bishop Paprocki’s initial vision in 1981, Ed believes there is still much room for growth so that everyone can have accessible and affordable legal help.

The vision of the Clinic is we’ll work hard to make the world a better place, and I think our staff does that, Ed added. If there was some way that everyone had access to justice, that would be the fulfillment of the American Dream.