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December 17, 2013 Articles

Marshaling the Pro Bono Talents of Stay-at-Home Lawyers: A New Model New

By Kristina Entner

Like most places in our country, the legal bar in Chicago is unable to provide sufficient free legal assistance to satisfy the growing demand by those in need. The irony is that Chicago and its suburbs are replete with attorneys who want to provide pro bono legal services, but who lack a workable model to do so. This is especially true of attorneys who have decided to take time off of work to raise their children. Out of the client’s need and the attorneys’ desire, an idea was born—the Pro Bono Network, a nonprofit based in Oak Park, Illinois, with the mission to bring more legal services to those in need by marshaling the talents of lawyers who have left full-time careers.

The Pro Bono Network partners with existing legal aid agencies to expand or adapt pro bono programs that will fit within the time constraints of stay-at-home parents. To that end, any project the Network adopts must satisfy several essential criteria: The agency must provide early morning training in Oak Park; hours must be flexible; matters should have short time frames; attorneys must be allowed to work in pairs to ensure back up when the inevitable sick-child situation arises; and the agency must provide malpractice insurance. Once a project is vetted, the Network first runs it as a pilot program, with a handful of volunteers participating to make sure it meets our criteria in practice.

<p>If the project works as intended, it is then rolled out to the entire network of attorneys by a volunteer project manager who arranges training and coordinates assignments. The Pro Bono Network works closely with the legal aid agency to keep the project running smoothly for our volunteers. We assist with supervising, administrative matters, troubleshooting, and ongoing training. Early volunteers on the project are paired with attorneys who come to the project later, providing mentoring and logistical advice.</p>
<p>Since its inception in early 2011, the Pro Bono Network has grown to more than 100 attorneys who have served more than 320 clients and clocked more than 3000 volunteer hours. Our volunteer attorneys now include those who work full time at home, those who have a full-time legal practice, and many in between. We have also recruited a slate of pro bono translators who have allowed us to represent clients in our area who are not native speakers of English. By becoming part of the Pro Bono Network, all of these attorneys are able to volunteer their valuable legal expertise, build skills, make professional connections, and forge lasting friendships.</p>
<p>Over time, the Pro Bono Network has partnered with 12 legal aid agencies in the Chicago area on a wide variety of projects. We have helped victims of domestic violence get orders of protection against their abusers. We have represented tenants facing eviction due to foreclosure or landlord misbehavior. We have drafted wills and powers of attorney for health care and property. We have obtained visas for undocumented immigrants who were victims of domestic violence or serious crimes. We have helped low-income debtors represent themselves in the collections courtroom. We have taught Chicago public school children about the Constitution, and we have monitored legislation affecting the rights of homeless students. Currently, the Network partners with the Legal Assistance Foundation; Lawyers Committee for Better Housing; Chicago Legal Aid for Incarcerated Mothers; the Center for Disability and Elder Law; the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago; the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; and the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services. Working with such a wide variety of agencies allows our volunteer attorneys to gain experience in a number of different substantive areas while helping low-income clients throughout our community. And we have done all this without hiring a babysitter and while still being able to make school lunches, go to the park, chaperone class trips, and stay home with sick kids.</p>
<p>The hours we donate have not just helped the clients we serve directly, they have also benefitted the agencies we work with. Agencies tell us that they have expanded the geographic scope of their work due to our attorneys being located primarily on the west side. Further, at least two agencies have been able to handle a greater number of complex matters because our attorneys have taken so many of the brief-service needs off their desk.</p>
<p>The Pro Bono Network has grown exponentially over the past two years. In September, we opened our first additional chapter. We intend to continue to grow and bring free legal aid to more people in need. At this point, we are a 100 percent volunteer-run organization. To bring our model to more places, we will need to transition to a paid professional staff. We hope to fund a full-time executive director and support staff through a combination of grants and individual donations. Given our success in Oak Park, we can only imagine the impact we will have as more chapters are established.</p>
<p><strong>Keywords: </strong>woman advocate, litigation, pro bono, legal aid, stay-at-home parents</p>