A Win-Win for the Legal Community and Access to Justice

October 17, 2013

CBF Report October 2013

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Planting the Seeds for Pro Bono Partnerships and Collaborations

By Kelly Tautges | CBF Director of Pro Bono and Court Advocacy

When it comes to pro bono, lawyers in the Chicago area have good reason to be proud of the many talented and creative pro bono advocates at legal aid organizations and law firms, exemplary judicial and bar leadership, and the active participation and support from thousands of attorneys in our legal community.Working together with these partners to ensure that pro bono service most effectively meets community needs is one of the key ways that the CBF is helping to make the justice system more fair and accessible for people in need. As a core part of the CBF’s overall mission to bring the legal community together to improve access to justice, the CBF’s pro bono program works to ensure that attorneys can easily find and connect with pro bono opportunities, promotes best practices and incubates and provides key funding for innovative new pro bono programs.

This last category–helping to create new and innovative pro bono programs–has been a particularly active part of the CBF’s work in recent years, as our pro bono community has come together to develop new pro bono programs jointly and from the ground up. The result has been stronger programs that meet client needs, are manageable and appropriate for legal aid and pro bono organizations, and are meaningful and attractive to volunteers. Having everyone at the table from the start means that programs are designed to address the goals, needs and interests of everyone involved.Most importantly, this collaborative approach demonstrates and reinforces a shared responsibility for access to justice and the success of the particular program.

A great example of the power of these collaborations is the Municipal Court Pro Bono Program, a partnership between the Circuit Court of Cook County, the CBA, the CBF, the Chicago Legal Clinic, CARPLS, and several law firms. The genesis for this program was Judge Thomas More Donnelly, a judge in the Municipal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County who saw an increasing number of litigants representing themselves in jury trials, a nearly impossible task for most people that often resulted in trials that were challenging not only for the unrepresented litigant, but also for the judge, jurors and opposing counsel. Judge Donnelly recognized that pro bono representation from area law firms had the potential to be an ideal solution, in part because the trial experience involved was highly sought-after by associates at law firms.

To take the concept from something Judge Donnelly administered in his courtroom to a program that could be more broadly utilized, Judge Donnelly reached out to the CBA and CBF. The CBA and CBF put together a team to consider and design a program, including (1) CARPLS, which runs the CBF-supported Municipal Court Advice Desk and could potentially screen cases; (2) the Chicago Legal Clinic, with a court-based attorney at the Municipal Court Advice Desk who handles referrals from CARPLS and has in-depth experience with Municipal Court practice; (3) representatives from four firms that volunteered to be part of a pilot phase of the program: Winston & Strawn, Jenner & Block, Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg and Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney; and (4) Megan McClung, who runs another CBA pro bono program and has significant trial experience in the Municipal Division.

The team began to develop a program that addressed the perspectives, goals and limitations of everyone involved. The CBF’s Pro Bono Checklist, a tool designed to help organizations develop pro bono programs, provided a roadmap of the issues to consider. The group grappled with many issues including, for example, the stage at which a case should be referred to the program. In many ways, it could be best for volunteers to take the assignment when the case was ready for trial, resulting in meaningful experience and service without extensive involvement in an ongoing case, which can be unpredictable and harder to manage. Referral at this stage, however, would mean that litigants would manage the cases themselves until that point, which could result in negative outcomes before the trial. By examining many factors, including the average length of time the cases were in the system, and understanding that every case with a jury demand would go to mandatory arbitration (a meaningful and guaranteed training experience for pro bono attorneys), the group determined that cases should be referred to the program as soon as practicable. This is just one example of elements of the program that the group worked to develop. Others included screening criteria, appropriate training, responsibility for supervision and the mechanism to distribute cases. Illinois Legal Aid Online created a special project page for the program on www.IllinoisProBono.org to host videotaped training programs and volunteer resources.

The program recently celebrated its two-year anniversary, having served more than 55 clients and expanding to include additional law firms and volunteers. Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans attended the anniversary event and said he is gratified by the program’s success because it demonstrates the power of pro bono service. “These volunteer lawyers take time from their busy law practices to provide vital assistance to low income litigants,” Evans said. “There is a tremendous need for these types of programs as judges continue to see an ever-increasing number of people without lawyers appearing in court.” The team continues to evaluate the program and make adjustments together to ensure the long-term sustainability and success of the program.

Upgrades to the volunteer opportunity search on www.IllinoisProBono.org are making it even easier to find and get involved with pro bono opportunities that are right for you. The Chicago Bar Foundation has partnered with ILAO to ensure high-quality and up-to-date volunteer opportunities and the site’s calendar identifies training programs that will allow you to get started. Visit www.IllinoisProBono.org today. In addition, The Chicago Bar Foundation Pro Bono Support Program provides one-on-one assistance getting involved. Contact Jessica Bednarz at 312/554-4952 or jbednarz@chicagobar.org with questions, for help connecting with pro bono opportunities or for a hard copy of the CBF’s Guide to Pro Bono opportunities.

The Municipal Court Pro Bono Program is just one example of our community coming together to develop new programs with active leadership and assistance from the CBF. The CBF brings people together, provides institutional knowledge to connect to other key resources, contributes pro bono expertise, and in many cases provides funding to start and sustain programs. The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), comprised of full-time pro bono counsel at law firms, has been instrumental in many of these programs and its role continues to grow. Working together, our legal community has developed a proven system for creating successful new pro bono programs.

The CBF is dedicated to continuing to spearhead collaboration and innovation in pro bono and is grateful for all of our strong partners here in the Chicago area. Together, we are making a real difference and are becoming a national model for how communities can work together to develop and run pro bono programs that improve access to justice.

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