May 19, 2017 Dialogue

The Suburban Pro Bono Experience: Helping Survivors of Domestic Violence

Anne Geraghty Helms and Jennifer Eldridge

No Right to a Lawyer

Sara[1] had never stepped foot in a courthouse before. She had thought about leaving her abuser for years, but the obstacles just seemed too great. After the most recent abuse, the police recommended she get an order from a judge that would offer some protection. If she got the order, the police could throw her abuser in jail if he came near her again.

She decided it was time to try.

Imagine what it must be like to take that first, terrifying step. You enter the courthouse and ask for help. Someone hands you a confusing stack of court forms to complete. You’re directed to a courtroom. You go in and wait for them to call your name. When they do, you find that you must stand up in front of a judge (and a room full of strangers) and offer intimate details about your life. After all that, the judge tells you to come back in two weeks and do it all over again. Only next time, your abuser will be there.

A person in Sara’s shoes has no right to a lawyer. And most go through this process alone.

 

Pro Bono in the Suburbs

Located 30 miles from downtown Chicago, the Rolling Meadows Courthouse serves over two dozen cities and villages in suburban Cook County, including areas with significant levels of poverty. Every day, people like Sara walk into the Rolling Meadows Courthouse seeking Orders of Protection.

Most of the time, they can find assistance with the process. A wonderful domestic violence agency, Between Friends, has a small office located in the Rolling Meadows Courthouse, and the program’s two Advocates help people like Sara navigate the court process. But Between Friends faces a problem:  for several hours per week, the Advocates must close their office doors to attend court or other agency meetings. Anyone walking into the courthouse during those hours was on her own.

 

Could Pro Bono Volunteers Help? (Isn’t Rolling Meadows Way out in the Suburbs)?

Chicago’s legal community has a rich and robust pro bono culture. Dozens of legal aid organizations provide hundreds of opportunities to volunteer, including at the city’s domestic violence courthouse downtown.

For one of the hundreds of lawyers who work at large corporations in the suburbs, the process of finding a local pro bono opportunity is less straightforward. Lawyers either must travel downtown to volunteer, or engage in pro bono work from their desks. There is little infrastructure for volunteering within their own communities.

Last year, a group of those suburban in-house lawyers from the legal departments of Allstate, Discover Financial Services, and Illinois Tool Works Inc.—each of which is headquartered within a few miles of the Rolling Meadows Courthouse in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago—decided to join forces with DLA Piper and create a pro bono program that would enable them to give back in their own community.

Each of the companies expressed a strong interest in serving domestic violence survivors, so when the group learned that there was a significant need to help Between Friends advise domestic violence victims at the local courthouse, they enthusiastically raised their hands to help. Thus, the Rolling Meadows Domestic Violence Help Desk was born. The idea was simple:  pro bono volunteers would help provide advice and guidance to domestic violence victims during times when the Between Friends office was closed. Volunteers would staff four hour shifts, and ensure that no one walking into the courthouse would have to go it alone.

 

But We’re Not Experts!

Of course, the lawyers at Allstate, Discover, DLA Piper, and Illinois Tool Works Inc. do not represent domestic violence victims as a part of their daily practice, and would-be volunteers understandably were concerned about making sure they were sufficiently well-versed to provide the highest standard of service to everyone who walked in the door.

Enter LAF, an agency that provides free civil legal services to low-income residents of Cook County. LAF’s lawyers regularly represent victims of domestic violence and offered to share their deep expertise with the would-be volunteers. Working with Between Friends, LAF developed a detailed, step-by-step volunteer manual—complete with pictures of key locations within the courthouse like the clerk’s office, the sheriff’s office, and even the desk in the Between Friends office where volunteers would sit. They developed a legal manual with statutes and sample pleadings, as well as a four-hour CLE program. They also offered backup support to volunteers during their shifts, providing a phone number for an “on call” lawyer at LAF who is available to answer questions during every shift.

Between Friends provides volunteers with the physical space and equipment to serve clients during their volunteer shift. The agency, which sits in the courthouse, also acts as a liaison with the judges who handle the domestic violence court calls.

DLA Piper offered to act as volunteer manager, creating an online signup system, sending calendar appointments and reminders to volunteers before their shifts, handling logistics of scheduling training, and ensuring that all shifts are staffed. DLA Piper lawyers also help staff the desk.

 

Progress and Lessons Learned

The Rolling Meadows Help Desk is a relatively new endeavor, and like any other new endeavor, it has been important to be flexible, to solicit feedback, and to make adjustments where needed.

Through a series of meetings and communications with volunteers, LAF, Between Friends, and the judges, the group has learned—most importantly—that the Help Desk is a great success. Volunteers love it. Judges report that they are seeing pleadings that plainly have been prepared by lawyers. Clients are grateful. And shifts are full for months to come.

But there have been logistical issues to iron out. Most have been small, but based on feedback from the judges, we have made one large-scale change to the program. Originally, because the clinic was brief-services only, volunteers would help survivors complete their paperwork and explain the court process, but not accompany victims to court. At the invitation of the court, we have changed the process so that volunteers—while not entering appearances—stand next to survivors during their first hearing. There are two benefits to this change. First, and most importantly, the lawyer can be there as a source of support for the client. But second, being in court offers the volunteer lawyers the opportunity to see the court process firsthand. As a result, they are better prepared to advise clients about the court process during future Help Desk shifts. If the Help Desk is too busy to allow the volunteer to go to court, victims are invited back to the Between Friends office at the end of their hearings to debrief, to ask questions about next steps, and to learn about resources that Between Friends can offer leading up to their plenary hearings.

Of course, any project is only as good as the team. The Rolling Meadows Help Desk, though still in its infancy, is thriving because it is nurtured and staffed by passionate individuals with a commitment to serving the community. Through the ups and downs of planning and implementation, the project felt destined to succeed because of the passion and dedication of those committed to its realization. And succeed it has.


 

[1] To protect client confidentiality, this story represents one typical example of the type of client seen at the Rolling Meadows Courthouse rather than that of a specific client.

 

 

Anne Geraghty Helms

Director and Counsel, US Pro Bono Programs at DLA Piper LLP (US)

Anne Geraghty Helms is Director and Counsel of US Pro Bono Programs at DLA Piper LLP (US), where she is responsible for helping to develop, lead, and manage the firm’s pro bono program in the United States.

Jennifer Eldridge

Associate, DLA Piper

Jennifer Eldridge is an associate at DLA Piper and is spending the first year of her practice at the firm as a Krantz Fellow. Created in 2011, the Krantz Fellowship provides two first-year associates the opportunity to spend their initial year of practice solely on pro bono work. The authors have been working together over the past several months to help develop and grow the Rolling Meadows Help Desk, a unique pro bono partnership through which in-house lawyers collaborate to serve domestic violence victims.