Top of the Class: The CBF 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 which can be very real for lawyers making relatively modest public service salaries while carrying mortgage-sized student debt tend 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 for even the most committed lawyers. And 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 at that time generally provided outstanding training to their lawyers in their fields of substantive expertise, they often struggled 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 follow-up discussions with law firm professional development directors and consultants, the CBF developed the Legal Aid Academy to help fill this gap.

The CBF Legal Aid Academy provides free, high-quality training and professional development opportunities to legal aid attorneys and staff in the Chicago area. This innovative pro bono program harnesses the resources and expertise of the Chicago legal community to train legal aid attorneys through customized programming on everything from deposition skills to coping with secondary trauma.

Hands-on deposition and trial skills trainings in particular have been a recurring favorite thanks to NITA and several CBF law firm partners in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and this past year. The Legal Aid Academy has even held programs to teach legal aid attorneys how to most effectively teach others, including a NITA trial skills training for experienced legal aid attorneys and a Train the Trainers program presented by one of the top experts in the field, David Cruickshank, in 2014.

Since 2009, the Legal Aid Academy has also provided access to thousands of hours of free CLE programming through CBF partnerships with CLE providers including Practicing Law Institute (PLI), Pincus Professional Education, the National Business Institute, and a number of others. In addition, a special grant from the CBF allows legal aid lawyers at dozens of CBF partner organizations to have complimentary CLE Advantage access to a wide array of Chicago Bar Association programs. 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.

Over time, the CBF hopes that the Legal Aid Academy will continue to provide these necessary connections and trainings as well as delving into the higher level professional development needs of Chicago’s legal aid community.