Celebrating Ten Years of A+ Training

By Patrick Wu | CBF Intern

For the past ten years, the CBF Legal Aid Academy has provided free, high-quality training and professional development opportunities for hundreds of legal aid attorneys to develop valuable skills so that they can better serve our community. With the help of generous pro bono contributions of time and expertise from attorneys, law firms, and CLE providers, the Academy has been able to continuously provide these professional development opportunities for Chicago’s legal aid community.

Why the Legal Aid Academy?

Chicago’s pro bono and legal aid organizations are top notch, teeming with some of the best lawyers in their respective fields. Even the most dedicated legal aid lawyers in these organizations, however, can face daunting challenges to making long-term commitments to these vital careers.

Financial challenges can be very real for lawyers making relatively modest public service salaries while carrying mortgage-sized student debt. This issue tends to get most of the attention in this area, and justifiably so. But as a groundbreaking study in 2006 detailed, there are other key supports—such as access to high-quality training and professional development—that also play an integral part in making legal aid a viable long-term career path. The study found those types of opportunities were too often out of reach for lawyers in legal aid, contributing to lawyers leaving this work prematurely.

While legal aid organizations provide outstanding training to their lawyers in their fields of substantive expertise, they often struggle to find the time and resources to train their attorneys on the other skills required to succeed in these careers. Based on these findings and discussions with law firm professional development directors and consultants, the CBF developed an innovative new pro bono program to help fill this gap.

Types of Training Provided

The Legal Aid Academy provides training through two types of programs:

  1. Customized Training: Firms, legal consultants, and members of the legal community create free training programs that are customized for the needs of the legal aid community
  2. Coordinated Training: Legal aid attorneys join already existing training programs through law firms or CLE providers

The Academy also partners with the CBA to provide free CLE Advantage memberships to all legal aid attorneys working at CBF grantee organizations (more than 350 in all). Additionally, all attorneys within the Academy have year-round access to over 2,500 hours of both live and on-demand seminars, webcasts, and other programs donated by the Practising Law Institute (PLI). Another ongoing generous partnership with Pincus Professional Education provides spaces in all Chicago-based programs—from depositions to presentation skills—to legal aid attorneys in Chicago.

All of these resources are free to the legal aid attorneys and staff who participate, making it possible for them to get training without cutting into the already-stretched budgets of legal aid organizations. Legal Aid Academy programming is available year-round, and promoted to legal aid lawyers through a training calendar on Illinois Legal Aid Online and a special quarterly e-newsletter.

A Personal Take on the Value of the Academy

The value and utility of accessible, high-quality training opportunities should not be underestimated. For example, this April on my very first day as a CBF intern, I was able to observe a three-hour program that focused on the experiences of young people in the justice system. The program was a partnership between the CBF Legal Aid Academy, the CBA Legal Aid Committee, and Baker & McKenzie’s pro bono partner, Angela Vigil. Over 40 attendants participated in a role-playing simulation where they assumed the persona of a real homeless youth. The simulation required the navigation of various public institutions, so participants were left to figure out the rules for themselves.

The CBF Legal Aid Academy relies on pro bono contributions to provide both coordinated and customized training. To learn more about how you can help, please contact the CBF’s Senior Manager of Advocacy & Engagement, Angela Inzano at ainzano@chicagobar.org, 312-554-4952.

Of course, the simulation was incredibly daunting and unforgiving, and no one was able to complete their assigned tasks. During the course of two hours, every participant experienced the frustration and hopelessness that youth experiencing homelessness can feel when dealing with unhelpful systems. After the simulation, all participants contributed to a group reflection session, where people could share their own experiences and insights. Ultimately, everyone who participated in this program is better equipped to advocate for homeless youth.

Examples of Programming

In addition to the programming provided year-round through partnerships with PLI, the CBA, Pincus, National Business Institute, and others, the CBF partners with experts nationwide to present customized legal aid programming a few times a year. Below are just a few recent examples of the excellent programs that the Academy provides with the help of our dedicated partners.

Negotiation Skills Training. In May 2019, the Academy is partnering with K&L Gates LLP to run a customized training session on negotiations skills. Legal aid attorneys will get the opportunity to develop both their litigation and transactional negotiations skills in this hands-on, interactive program.

Deposition & Trial Skills Training. In September 2018, the Academy partnered with Kirkland & Ellis LLP to host a customized Trial and Deposition Skills Training program. Over forty lawyers attended this three-day session, where they trained on topics like examining witnesses and taking/defending a deposition. With the help of volunteers from PWC, this training program used mock expert witnesses to realistically replicate a court setting. Participants had the opportunity to sharpen their skills with mock depositions and witness examinations while receiving immediate feedback. An ongoing partnership with Kirkland, NITA, and other firms has allowed a version of this very popular training to be provided almost every year since 2013.

Social Media as an Investigative Tool. In June 2018, the Academy hosted a seminar on the access and risks that come with using social media within the legal industry. Partnering with local law librarians, attorneys learned about the privacy risks associated with using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Training the Trainers. In partnership with PLI and Baker & McKenzie LLP, David Cruickshank from Edge International partnered with the Academy to present a two-day program in March 2019 that relayed innovative teaching methods to make training programs for pro bono attorneys more effective. Participants were able to create their own templates for training programs and receive feedback from their peers and instructor. This popular program was also provided in 2014 with the support of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. Attendees will use these new techniques to collectively train hundreds of others, amplifying the volume and effectiveness of training in the legal aid community.

Vicarious Trauma Seminar. Legal aid attorneys and staff commonly work with clients in crisis who describe their traumatic stories in detail, which places a heavy burden on practitioners. In November, 2016, the Academy partnered with Dr. Nancy Zarse from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology on a seminar where participants learned how to identify secondary trauma and the personal effects that can come from interactions with clients in crisis. Those who attended learned strategies to mitigate and address this stress and trauma.

Looking Ahead

Over time, the CBF hopes that the Legal Aid Academy will not only continue to provide these necessary connections and trainings but will increase our capacity to delve into the higher-level professional development needs of Chicago’s legal aid community.


Patrick Wu is a sophomore at Northwestern University and interned at the CBF last spring.