Pro bono legal work was almost unheard of 50 years ago, and to the extent it was, it was often frowned upon. With that backdrop, attorney John Ferren and a group of young lawyers founded Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) on June 2, 1964.
This was a young person’s radical movement, said current Executive Director Meg Benson, who has been with the organization since 1982. I’ve seen the acceptance of pro bono as an important part of legal service programs expand both in the private sector and legal aid sector.
This year, CVLS celebrates 50 years as a pro bono legal aid organization, the first of its kind in the country and one of the most impactful organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign. Although views of pro bono have come a long way over the last five decades, the mission of CVLS has stayed the same: to provide free legal services for people in need through the use of volunteers, and to support the volunteer advocates who make the work possible. What has evolved at CVLS over the years is the extent of services they offer, such as court-based programs, and the level of support given to volunteers, like offering malpractice insurance.
Benson credits the CBF with being a leader in diversifying the pro bono services available for clients and volunteers, working with both CVLS and with the many other pro bono and legal aid organizations that now serve the Chicago area. You can volunteer three hours a week at a help desk or go to a Saturday clinic and fill out DACA forms, notes Benson. There are many ways and amounts of volunteering you can do.
CVLS has grown to a diverse network of nearly 3,000 volunteers who are extensively trained and supported to help clients in any one of the organization’s 20 neighborhood clinics, through the CVLS panel program, or in one of four court-based programs. To date, CVLS has helped approximately 450,000 clients.
The court-based programs include the Chancery Court Access to Justice Program, where CVLS recruits and supports pro bono attorneys who represent low-income litigants in cases that include mortgage foreclosure, subsidized housing evictions, and administrative appeals from government agencies. In addition, CVLS partners with the Probate Court on two programs where judges appoint CVLS to serve as guardian ad litem, or GAL, for minor children and adults who are alleged to be disabled. CVLS recruits, trains, and supports volunteer attorneys to act as GALs for both minors and adults. CVLS also oversees and provides services through the Minor Guardianship Assistance Desk, where people representing themselves are seeking guardianship of a minor; that program helps over 7,000 people annually.
Benson would like to see CVLS expand its litigation, stating that judges have expressed interest in appointing CVLS on different types of cases. I envision us expanding in appellate work if we had the funding to take more court-appointed cases in other areas, but that requires a certain amount of staff, Benson added. One judge asked CVLS to serve as child representatives in cases relating to custody and domestic relations. CVLS agreed to 30 court appointments this year and hopes to turn it into a child representative court appointment program. You can get so many more cases through us; one staff lawyer can handle 100 cases a year with volunteers, she continued. That’s where I would like to expand if and when we can.
Reflecting on the past 32 years with the organization, Benson’s most memorable experiences come from working with a talented, dedicated, and fun pool of volunteers and staff.
I’ve had some amazing cases that I could just dig into because I never had to worry about my client not being able to afford it, said Benson. If I had a case and I didn’t know how to handle something, I had all these amazing volunteers I can call and get their help. Thinking back to my staff, I could not do my job without these people. It’s really all about the people.