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December 16, 2020 MEMBER SPOTLIGHT

Michael G. Bergmann

Michael G. Bergmann has served as the Public Interest Law Initative's Executive Director since 2010.  He has overseen the development of innovative pro bono committees at the judicial circuit level across Illinois and the expansion of PILI into providing direct services, as well as the launch of an active and robust Alumni Network. 

Michael is currently a member of the Section's Special Chair Initiatives Task Force and is assisting with the development of the CRSJ Clearinghouse Initiative.

Michael G. Bergmann

Michael G. Bergmann

 Where are you from? How have your experiences here, or throughout your upbringing, influenced your passions and aspirations today?

I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, the youngest of six kids. History and civics has always appealed greatly to me and those interests ultimately took me to college in DC, where I studied politics. Back then, I thought I would work in government and perhaps one day run for office. While I did have internships in government during undergrad, I ultimately decided DC wasn’t the place for me and moved to Chicago shortly after graduating. In Chicago, I had a good job with real career advancement opportunities in the private sector, but a calling to serve others still resonated most with me. I ultimately began attending law school and after trying to do both law school and my job for the first few years, I finally decided to leave my job to finish law school and become a lawyer. 

What drives you?

Though I don’t love some of the connotations that it comes with, I am most probably a classic “Type A” personality. But more specifically, I like being a problem solver. I like to bring people together to find solutions, and I like being a “connector.” Throughout my legal career, I’d like to believe that I have channeled those aspects of my personality into working towards fairness and justness within our legal system. 

What is one thing most people do not know about you that you feel they should?

Not sure if we’re going for fun fact here, or something deep, so I am going with fun fact. While finishing law school and in the early years of my legal career, I took violin lessons, having never played that instrument before but always having wanted to. Lockdown boredom during COVID led me to dabble a bit with the guitar. I’ve always liked music, including singing my heart out to country music while I drive around Illinois for work. That said, a friend who was a great singer and performer once told me that I “had the heart of a singer.” I understood that to mean that it is best if no one hears me when I sing my heart out.   

When you look back, what is it that you want your advocacy and professional career to stand for?

I hope I can look back and believe that my work throughout my career made a difference – that it helped others, that it represented the best ideals of the legal profession, that it made the legal profession more aware of and responsive to the need that exists from low-income and underrepresented communities, that our legal system was better understood and more respected because of it, and that it is a richly diverse and more representative legal profession.

What is one issue which you care about or work most on and why?

My entire legal career has been spent working in the public interest law sector, and at the center has been about making our justice system better understood, more accessible and equitable, and responsive to the changing times. I see these concepts all being very much interconnected and what I work towards each day – from advocating for greater funding for legal services across the federal and state government as well as the private sector; to recruiting and supporting pro bono volunteers; to removing barriers facing those in need of help and those willing to help. 

What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing this issue today?

Polarization in politics and the budget woes faced by the federal and many state governments has made securing sufficient funding for access to justice a challenge. The billable hour focus and profit of law firms and the risk-averse nature of lawyers likewise make it challenging to get more attorneys to help those in need. We still face challenges in diversifying the legal profession due to leaks in the pipeline from start to finish for a variety of reasons. And a lack of sufficient civics education hinders the public’s understanding of the legal system and profession.

In what corners do you find the greatest support in propelling these issues you work on? In other words, who are your most frequent allies?

Younger lawyers who are wonderfully filled with ideals about the law and the legal profession, the judiciary and bar associations have been some of the best allies I’ve work with on issues of accessibility and equity in our justice system. I got involved with the ABA Young Lawyers Division, and ultimately chaired the Division, because of its commitment to public service. I got involved with the ABA Judicial Division, and ultimately chaired the Division, because of its work in bringing the whole of the legal profession together to make sure our courts and judiciary are better understood, and more accessible, diverse, fair and just. 

What CRSJ project(s) are you working on? Or, what have you undertaken in CRSJ that you found most rewarding to have worked on? Are there any upcoming events or projects you want us all to know about?

I am working on the Clearinghouse/Connection Platform and Convening Meeting project. The goal of this project is to facilitate collaboration and information sharing within the civil rights legal community; provide resources and connections to attorneys who need information or who want to provide services and/or assistance to civil rights causes; and enable the Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice to understand the needs of this community, placing us in a better position to serve the civil rights law community. Currently, we are putting the finishing touches on a survey that will be sent to civil rights and social justice organizations to learn more about their pro bono and other volunteer needs so that we can be a national source for that information for those looking to help.