Honoring Careers of Dedication and Service

Eight attorneys recognized for outstanding work at the CBA and CBF Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon

Eight unsung heroes in the legal profession were recognized and celebrated for their extraordinary service to the community at the CBA and CBF’s 19th Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon on July 17, 2017.

About 700 people attended this year’s event held at the Fairmont Hotel Chicago, co-chaired by David Bamlango, a partner at DLA Piper LLP (US), and Susan L. Lees, Executive Vice President and General Counsel for Allstate Insurance Company.

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This year’s award recipients were recognized for their unflagging commitment to advancing access to justice and inspiring others to do likewise. Some brief background on the Pro Bono and Public Service Awards and this year’s honorees follows below, and more detailed information is available at chicagobarfoundation.org/awards.

The Kimball R. Anderson and Karen Gatsis Anderson Public Interest Fellowship

Determined to carry on her father’s legacy of advocacy for our society’s most vulnerable members, Sarah Hess applied to law school with the sole intention of practicing public interest law. After graduating from The John Marshall Law School in 2014, she developed an innovative medical-legal partnership program at Erie Family Health Center’s school-based health clinics. Sarah currently puts her dedication to public interest law into practice at the Legal Counsel for Health Justice, where she helps low-income children and their families navigate health-related legal issues through another groundbreaking medical-legal partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago. With the financial assistance of the Anderson Fellowship, Sarah will be able to continue serving the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of the Chicago community.

The Exelon Outstanding Corporate Counsel Award

Gary Wachtel, who heads the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Group in the law department at Discover Financial Services, is also the Chair of the company’s award-winning pro bono program and leads by example in that role. In just the past two years alone, he has led the legal team to contribute almost 1,500 hours of pro bono service, with more than 90% of the department participating. Gary’s leadership was integral to building the pro bono program at Discover from the ground up, and he has always been an active participant himself. Gary was instrumental in the creation of a domestic violence help desk at Rolling Meadows courthouse, where he regularly volunteers, and he consistently helps staff an LAF clinic in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Gary also organizes a wide variety of other pro bono opportunities for his department and ensures that everyone, even law clerks and paralegals, can participate.

The Edward J. Lewis II Pro Bono Service Award

Pro bono has been a centerpiece of the law firm that Kathleen Robson Gordon and Sal Lopez founded in 2012 from day one. With a focus on consumer protection law, Kathleen and Sal have greatly impacted Chicagoans in need, especially in areas of foreclosure, debt collection, and bankruptcy. They have accepted a vast amount of pro bono cases 129 from CVLS alone have devoted hundreds of volunteer hours to the Chancery Advice Desk and the Bankruptcy Court Help Desk, and also mentor other pro bono attorneys in complex bankruptcy and foreclosure matters. Kathleen and Sal consistently show that firms of any size can have a significant impact through pro bono work.

The Leonard Jay Schrager Award of Excellence

For over 40 years, Howard M. Rubin has worked to improve access to justice in a variety of roles at DePaul University College of Law and inspired thousands of law students in the need for public interest law. Howard’s entire career has been marked by his efforts to improve access to justice. As a new lawyer, he co-founded the Prison Legal Services project, offering free legal services to Illinois’s incarcerated population. During his 22 years as the Director of DePaul College of Law Legal Clinic, Howard led more than 1,200 students in pro bono and public interest cases. Under Howard’s leadership, the Clinic grew significantly, managing an average of 618 cases a year that often were referred to the Clinic by the courts or legal aid organizations. In his time at DePaul, Howard also has served in leadership roles on a variety of legal aid and public service boards and committees, including Chicago Volunteer Legal Services among many others.

The Maurice Weigle Exceptional Young Lawyer Award

Since beginning her practice in 2005, Trisha Rich has donated more than 2,200 hours of pro bono service and established herself as an expert of legal ethics and professional responsibility. An attorney with Holland & Knight LLP, Trisha is also the founder of the Attorney Defense Initiative, the first pro bono service of its kind in the country. She volunteers with the Lawyers for the Creative Arts, the National Immigration Justice Center, the ACLU, and the Make a Wish Foundation. Trisha was recently appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, and serves on the Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee, along with a host of bar groups and committees. She has taught as an adjunct professor at DePaul and Northwestern Universities, and authored numerous publications.

The Richard J. Phelan Public Service Award

In her 19 years as a public servant, Sheri Mecklenburg has gone above and beyond to improve the justice system. Sheri began with the City of Chicago Law Department, followed by an appointment as General Counsel for the Chicago Police Department, where she drafted legislation protecting free speech in mass demonstrations and the nation’s first Witness Rights Policy. In 2007, Sheri founded the Women’s DNA Initiative to address a backlog of untested rape kits and drafted legislation to ensure that future backlogs are not overlooked. Sheri currently works with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where in addition to being a dedicated trial attorney, she continues to be involved in a variety of initiatives to improve the court system and the community. She currently serves as President of the Board of Directors for the Federal Bar Association’s Chicago Chapter.

The Thomas H. Morsch Public Service Award

Dan Lesser began his impactful legal aid career at the Legal Assistance Foundation, quickly becoming an expert on public benefits. At the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law since 1996, Dan now serves as the director of the Economic Justice Unit and the coordinator of the Responsible Budget Coalition. Throughout his time there, Dan has played a major role in the passage of many significant laws and regulations, helping to create a child-care system that allows low-income parents to work and to get additional education and training, devising state benefits programs to support refugees and asylees, and advocating to pass a state budget. Among other achievements, his efforts have led Illinois to expand SNAP eligibility by 80,000 people and to stagger food stamp issuances so stores can maintain a supply of fresh produce.