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Community Activism Law Alliance: Transforming Legal Aid

Jackie Casey

Lawyers have tremendous power to change people's lives through legal representation and systemic advocacy.  At the Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA) in Chicago founded by Lam Ho in 2014, a group of lawyers and activists are changing how lawyers and communities work together.  The CALA model of “community activism lawyering” shifts the practice of law from a transactional relationship focused on an individual client/case crisis to a transformative proactive partnership for systemic change.   Lawyers serve individual clients; yet, with the promise of preventing future crisis, better systems are put in place to address critical community needs.

By uniting lawyers with activists, CALA leverages the combined resources of each to operate more cost-effectively and achieve more significant impact than what lawyers or activists working alone can deliver.  CALA’s model is community-located and directed.  Lawyers visit clients in their communities at organizations they trust and can more easily access.  CALA partners with community-based organizations that provide space, administrative services, language translation services, and other support so legal services can be delivered cost-effectively.  CALA’s partners organize law-driven activism activities in support of the clients’ cases, leveraging CALA's and the partner organization's resources and expertise to run activism-law clinics focused on issues and challenges faced by many community members. CALA’s partners make decisions to best meet the needs of prospective clients -- hours of operation, priority areas of law, eligibility criteria, location, and types of services. 

CALA’s mission uniquely combines law and activism.  For example, in a recent case, CALA's lawyers, through the Community Empowerment Legal Clinic, a partnership with the Vietnamese Association of Illinois (VAI), took on Sergio's immigration case.  Sergio, an undocumented, gay artist and activist from Mexico, had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and faced deportation in less than 30 days.  Simultaneously, CALA attorneys worked tirelessly to pursue legal claims on his criminal and immigration cases and VAI, community members, activists, and other partners mobilized to obtain support from politicians and public officials, eventually persuading the State’s Attorney to support and expedite CALA’s petition to vacate Sergio’s conviction, which paved the way for the deportation relief. 

While CALA’s lawyers help individual clients, representation is done in partnership with both the client and the community partner, empowering that community and hopefully leaving it with a long-lasting positive change from which others can benefit.  For example, last summer, after a fire occurred on the top floor of an 18-unit apartment building in Chicago, the landlord attempted to mass-evict families with as little as 10-days’ notice.  CALA attorneys simultaneously helped the tenants form the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) to build collective power and fought the evictions in court.  Jake Marshall, a tenant union member, described the success of this combined strategy.  “CALA's services play a crucial role in helping ATU resist evictions, fight gentrification, and build community power. In the beginning, a lot of tenants didn't feel that we could win the ability to remain in the building.  They felt defeated and said they were just going to move out.  CALA attorneys listened to us and implemented a legal strategy based on our goals.”  As a result of ATU’s and CALA’s work together, they achieved an agreement with the landlord that exceeded their initial expectations and produced results beyond remedies they could have obtained in court.  

Mr. Ho has a vision for CALA – to reform legal aid and re-imagine how lawyers and communities work together in service of social justice and social change.  In 2018, the American Bar Endowment provided seed funding so that CALA could open two new clinics serving distinct populations for the first time – domestic workers and the Arab American community.  

Today, CALA operates 19 community-located and directed programs across the greater Chicagoland area.  CALA seeks to expose more and more lawyers and legal aid organizations to the advantages of this model, and ultimately change how legal aid and progressive organizations operate on a national level. Already the ground is shifting. CALA is working with law schools – Harvard, NYU, Yale, DePaul, and Northeastern – that want to embed students interested in community lawyering into its CALA’s Chicago projects.   Through these law school partnerships, CALA is exposing incoming generations of lawyers to this new framework of lawyering, training them in this new kind of practice, and building a talent pipeline.  Just eighteen months ago, CALA actively sought community organization partners; now, these organizations seek out CALA for support. 

Mr. Ho’s commitment to this evolving model is personal.  He grew up in an immigrant family that relied on public benefits and soup kitchens when they first came to the US from Vietnam. The challenges he faced and gave him a direct understanding of systemic inequities and a deeply rooted sense of responsibility and gratitude. In 2005, Mr. Ho went to law school, determined to combine his activism experiences with a legal career focused on bridging the gap between the law and social change.

Mr. Ho describes his motivation for founding CALA and its community activism lawyering model in terms of shifting the power of the law and putting it in the hands of the people. “You can’t discuss access to justice without thinking about how the power of the law and legal system is distributed and restricted – in courtrooms, among and by judges and lawyers, and through statutes and regulations,” Mr. Ho said.     

Mr. Ho said, “the grants we are receiving, especially from a funder like the American Bar Endowment, tell us that our model for a new way of community-based lawyering is resonating with the legal profession.”  CALA’s successes inspire and energize Mr. Ho because they show the strength, resilience, and creativity of “clients” and their communities in the face of injustice and the passion of the lawyers who listen to and strategize with them so that together they can create social change.

Established in 1942, the American Bar Endowment (ABE) is an independent, 501(c)(3)   not-for-profit public charity. The ABE provides lawyer members of the ABA with a unique way to protect themselves, their families, and their professional endeavors through participation in a range of ABE-sponsored insurance products underwritten by New York Life Insurance Company – with the option to seamlessly give any available annual dividends* they would otherwise receive to the ABE as a tax-deductible donation. In turn, the ABE makes grants that support critical law-related public service, educational, and research programs. The ABE is proud to be a charitable organization powered by generations of lawyers committed to ensuring equal access to justice for all.  

*Annual dividends are not guaranteed.

CALA unites lawyers and activists in a collaborative pursuit for justice by leveraging legal services to benefit the most marginalized communities and individuals. CALA is changing legal aid. We are changing how lawyers and communities work together. Our lawyers work with activists to help their communities access justice and pursue social change.