More than 400 people came together at the Hilton Chicago in July to honor seven unsung heroes in our legal community at the CBA and CBF’s 24th Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon. The event again underscored that no matter where we are in the legal profession, we have a unique ability to make our community a better place by improving access to justice for those most in need.
Nicole Smith’s commitment to public interest work has been apparent since her days as a law student at the Washington University School of Law.
As a staff attorney at Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA), Nicole provides legal and educational services to youth in the southern suburbs of Cook County. She also helps people with past contact with the criminal justice system to productively move forward with their lives by helping them seal and expunge juvenile or criminal records.
Nicole truly embodies what it means to be committed to public service. She is empathetic, passionate, and most importantly dedicated to her work. As this year’s recipient of the Anderson fellowship, which includes a $50,000 award to help repay law school debt, Nicole will be able to continue her work with CGLA, providing legal aid to the communities in Chicago that need it the most.
Judge Catherine Schneider has been dedicated to legal aid, pro bono, and access to justice since she graduated from Loyola University School of Law in 1994.
Of particular note, Judge Schneider served as a volunteer attorney, associate board member, and treasurer at CARPLS. Eventually, Judge Schneider made a full-time commitment to CARPLS and served there for ten years before becoming a judge. During her time as a legal aid lawyer, Judge Schneider saw firsthand how difficult it was for pro se litigants to navigate the legal system. When she heard about the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, a project started by Justice Kilbride himself, she jumped at the opportunity to simplify court processes for self-represented litigants and would have a particularly big impact as co-chair of the Commission’s Forms Committee.
Jennifer Rosato Perea, Dean of DePaul University School of Law, has been a force for good in legal academia for many years, and is one of the first Latina law school deans in the country. Affectionately known as “Dean Jenn” by those who work with her, she is a leader who truly strives to support her students at all stages of their law school journeys.
Throughout her career, Dean Jenn has not only been committed to maintaining the academic excellence of each institution she served but also fostering that excellency and a commitment to giving back to the community in each individual student. During her time at DePaul, she has created programs and instituted reforms that have increased the bar passage rate and the admissions requirements as well as the school’s national ranking, all while continuing to nurture the law school’s longstanding commitment to public service. Most notably, Dean Jenn has increased DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives at the school in a meaningful and impactful way.
Shelisa Thomas started as an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP after graduating cum laude from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in 2019, and she already has committed more than 1,800 hours to pro bono work.
One of Shelisa’s most notable achievements is her success in securing the resentencing and release of Corzell Cole earlier this year. Corzell had been convicted of murder and attempted murder at the age of 19 on an accountability theory of liability based on the actions of someone who was with him at the time, and he had been fighting these convictions for more than 19 years before he met Shelisa. Shelisa and her team were able to successfully vacate Corzell’s original sentence and get him released in March 2022 under a new Illinois law that allows for resentencing “when the sentence no longer advances the interests of justice.” Corzell is now working as a barber and getting a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern.
Shelisa is a shining example of the power of pro bono work and how it can be used to change the lives of others.
At just 36 years old, Patrick Yingling already has collected more than a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments in his legal career.
As a partner at Reed Smith LLP, Patrick has dedicated more than 750 hours annually to pro bono cases while maintaining a busy practice at the firm. He has obtained several victories for LGBTQ+ rights, including court recognition of same-sex marriage and the invalidation of rulings that prevented transgender individuals from changing their names. Furthermore, he has also taken on cases to protect voting rights and fought against the gerrymandering of political maps.
Patrick’s clients and his colleagues describe him as an understanding advocate who is experienced, but not cynical. Patrick is a source of confidence for his clients, and their testimonials commend him for listening and responding to their concerns. His drive and dedication to improving access to justice truly embody the spirit of what it means to be a lawyer.
Chantal Kazay’s longstanding commitment to pro bono work dates back to her time at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law. Chantal has continued that commitment throughout her corporate legal career, first at Aon and now as a Director and Senior Counsel for Litigation in Discover’s Law Department.
Joining Discover in 2021, Chantal is already the co-chair of Discover’s in-house pro bono program. Chantal leads by example, boasting an impressive number of pro bono hours ranging from advocacy for the elderly and disabled, to criminal record expungement, to immigration. Currently, Chantal volunteers monthly with Communities Partnering 4 Peace, a community-based initiative convened by Metropolitan Family Services that provides a comprehensive long-term approach to reducing gun violence and gang activity among the individuals and communities it serves.
For more than 25 years, Pat Wrona has dedicated her legal career to legal aid. She joined CARPLS in 1995 as a part-time attorney, and in 2007, she became the Director of Legal Services.
Pat supports a 50-person staff that delivers services in thirteen practice areas through CARPLS’ hotlines, advice desks, and statewide projects and collectively provides over 80,000 legal consultations a year. Over the past 15 years, with Pat’s quiet leadership and guidance, CARPLS has become a national leader in legal service delivery innovation. As an expert in employment law, Pat made a particular impact after the onset of the pandemic by helping create BennyFits Illinois, a virtual assistant that has helped thousands navigate the unemployment process.
Pat is the embodiment of CARPLS’ core mission: that no one should have to face a legal problem alone.