“This is Grassroots”

A Snapshot of the Woodlawn Legal Clinic and the Community that Made it Happen

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Working in civil legal aid, you become accustomed to limited resources and occasional setbacks. With only 15 minutes before the Woodlawn Legal Clinic opens for clients, the internet vanishes and the staff is hard-pressed to find it. While Haleigh Haffner, an AmeriCorps VISTA in LAF’s Children and Families Practice Group, makes calls for technical assistance, Regina Hernandez, a VISTA Attorney at LAF and the key figure behind the clinic, begins pondering Plans B and C out loud. No internet means squinting at the small screen of Regina’s cell phone and, once the clinic finishes, potential overtime creating client profiles in LAF’s case database. When Haleigh hangs up without good news, Regina plugs in a small desk fan (“It gets hot in here.”), and settles in at one of the tables in a secluded area that she calls the “war room.” With piles of advice on everything from eviction to domestic violence, a box of sandwiches, and plenty of chairs for attorneys to sit and strategize on behalf of their clients, it looks like the first line of defense on what will become a legal battlefield. “We can’t let this [setback] affect the people out there who need our help,” she gestures to those lining up in the waiting room. “The important thing is that the people here are seen and served. We’ll make it work.”

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AmeriCorps VISTAs, Haleigh Haffner and Kalin O’Connor

The Woodlawn Legal Clinic began 6 years ago through the partnership of LAF, DLA Piper, and the AKArama foundation, the oldest Greek-letter organization established by college educated African American women. On the second Wednesday of every month, attorneys and volunteers set up a low-budget mobile law firm at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter community center in Hyde Park and make their expertise available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Since its conception, Woodlawn has served 875 clients, an average of about 30 people each month.  However, this February’s clinic saw a record 50 clients. “This is the most we’ve ever had,” Regina is wide-eyed as Kalin O’Connor, the VISTA Volunteer Coordinator at LAF, delivers yet another pile of intake forms to her makeshift desk. She’s not entirely surprised though. There’s been a concerted effort to spread the word, an initiative that’s ramped up recently with partnerships with other community organizations.

As the night progresses, the chairs in the waiting room fill up and so do the stations in the interview space where clients discuss their legal problem with an attorney. The staff is always in motion, dashing back and forth between interviews and the war room, shaking hands with clients they’ve helped and calling the names of the next in line. To someone just stepping into the building it might look like chaos, but there’s a rhythm to it. Regina’s fan makes a lot of sense. The check-in table has become crowded with new clients, each guided through the check-in process by one of the dedicated volunteers. As the first point of contact for clients at the clinic, these volunteers answer initial questions and smooth out initial anxieties. “People come in with a lot of issues, some from a very emotional place. They represent out there,” Ruth Slaughter, Director of Corporate & Community Relations at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter, points outside. “We keep that in mind and work to meet them where they’re at.”

Meeting people where they’re at sums up Woodlawn Legal Clinic’s origin story. Its founders saw that people in legal need were often unable to make the trip to their offices for counsel, so they decided to bring the counsel to them. “For a few years now, pro bono resources have been shrinking,” Annie Geraghty Helms, DLA Piper’s Director and Counsel for Pro Bono Programs, told the ABA Journal. “We have a responsibility, a real call to action to work together.” Working with AKArama and LAF, Annie conceptualized the clinic as a project built from community. “More and more, what I’ve seen from the leadership of corporate clients and in the firm world is this recognition that we are all lawyers and in it together.”

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LAF Volunteer, Margaret Boyd, and Ruth Slaughter

She is not alone in her belief.  The volunteers dedicating their time to Woodlawn come from LAF and DLA Piper, as well as Chicago law schools and legal departments of companies like Hyatt and Discover Financial Services. This allows volunteers to serve clients in teams, each member contributing their own set of skills while also creating an educational experience for all. Often the legal intervention is brief (a sternly worded phone call from an attorney to an unfair landlord is sometimes all that’s needed to set things straight), but when the cases get more complex volunteers will establish a plan of action with LAF staff. In true legal aid fashion, the system is effective because no resource is left untapped. A volunteer attorney may practice divorce law by day, but at the clinic they may suddenly need to advise a client struggling to attain much-needed Public Benefits. “It’s really a testament to the fact that lawyers, no matter their legal field, are valuable as attorneys,” explains Gwen Hickey, a VISTA in the External Relations Department at LAF and first time volunteer at the clinic. “With the guidance of LAF staff, they can use their training and license to do great work for clients outside of their practice area.”

At the end of the evening, there are still clients being interviewed; one, who came in after the cut-off time, was given an appointment at the Jose de Diego Clinic, a partnership between LAF and Katten Muchin Rosenman. Dennericka Brooks, a senior attorney in LAF’s Housing Practice Group who’s been at Woodlawn since its beginning, is still discussing a case (“She’s notorious for taking on clients, even when she is already at her limit with case work,” Regina says.) and first time volunteers are already talking about next month. “This is grassroots,” Bertina Power-Stewart, President of the Theta Omega Chapter, grins and spreads her arms to show the bustling AKArama center. “This comes from the community.”

 

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Let’s Do Lunch: Part Two

 LAF’s 2016 Brownbag Roundtable Series Continues with the Consumer Practice Group

Predatory Lending Round table

As times change, so do the methods of people who abuse systems for personal gain. Those who take advantage of mortgage lending are no exception. But as their methods grow and change, so to do the efforts of the team at LAF who stand against them. “The Life and Times of Predatory Mortgage Lending: A Tale Told Through the Lens of LAF Litigation” was the second of LAF’s 2016 Brownbag Roundtable Series. Dan Lindsey, Director of the Consumer Practice Group, along with Supervisory Attorneys James Brady and Michelle Weinberg, and Senior Attorney, Kathryn Liss, shared their work with a crowded room last week, teaching about how predatory mortgage lending has evolved and exacerbated racial and economic inequality in our community.

One of the cases they profiled was against Mark Diamond, a notorious home repair contractor who preyed predominately on elderly African Americans with false promises of home improvements. He overcharged for bare-bones work (if any work at all), arranged the financing so that he could directly obtain the maximum available funds from a clients’ mortgage loan, and did not provide the legally required consumer rights disclosures. LAF attorneys represented more than a dozen of Diamond’s victims and obtained over $250,000 in recovery. In June 2015, Diamond was finally stopped by the Attorney General, due in large part to the information provided by LAF and the Consumer Practice Group’s tireless representation of individual victims.

“Fraud never sleeps. And so there will always be predators of one kind or another,” they declared last week. Let the hard-working Consumer Practice Group serve as an example that there are also those who will stand up for what is right. Way to go, team!

A Community Committed to Justice

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LAF’s history, like any history, is one of inspiring highs and rocky lows, and, like any history, it’s filled with people who have pushed the story forward with passionate belief and action. LAF remains a force to be reckoned with in the legal world because of these people, notably many of whom have come from Jenner & Block LLP.  Selected as the 2015 #1 Law Firm for Pro Bono Service by The American Lawyer, named a Pro Bono All-Star in 2015 by Law360, and placed on The National Law Journal’s 2016 Pro Bono Hot List, Jenner & Block has earned national recognition because of years of staunch commitment to pro bono service.  It makes sense that LAF and Jenner & Block would find themselves partners as they provide legal aid to Chicago’s most marginalized communities.

Jenner & Block has had a consistent presence at LAF for years:  Diana White, LAF’s current executive director, was an associate and partner at the firm from 1986 to 1997; partner Barbara Steiner is currently on LAF’s Governing Board; and associates William Strom and Caroline Lindsey are dedicated members of LAF’s Young Professionals Board.  Jenner & Block alumni that have served on LAF’s board in the past include Bill Von Hoene, Jr., Dan Hurtado, Ron Marmer, and Cunyon Gordon.  In 2005, LAF honored senior partner Tom Sullivan with LAF’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his “career-long pro bono accomplishments and efforts to improve the administration of justice.”

These generous individuals embody the qualities that drive LAF and its partners:  social responsibility, a core sense of right, and the motivation to combat what is wrong.  In the words of Jerold S. Solovy, the firm’s late chairman emeritus, a Jenner & Block attorney for 55 years, and the man behind the prestigious Solovy Equal Justice Award that annually honors an exemplary LAF attorney, “The client comes first.”  Both LAF and Jenner & Block stand by this motto, and both show that the assistance the client receives should not be defined by economic constraints.  Currently, Jenner & Block attorneys Keri Holleb Hotaling, Justin Steffen, and Kathleen Gibbons are working with LAF to help a mother receive sole custody of her son, and attorneys Amanda Amert and Jennifer Senior play key roles in a case in which LAF seeks unpaid wages for victims of human trafficking.

Yes, LAF’s history has been a journey with its ups and downs, but one of the beautiful things about history is that it is always evolving into a future, and this future looks promising, in no small part thanks to Jenner & Block.

The Moves We Make

Richard Klawiter and DLA Piper: Legal Aid Advocates Making Strides

When you move, you take things with you. Usually these things are what are most important to you, that you would find it difficult to live without. When Richard Klawiter left his position as an LAF staff attorney in 1994 for a job at a DLA Piper legacy firm, he packed up much more than his office. “My first four years as a lawyer were at LAF and it helped shape who I am, what I think, and what I aspire to do as a professional and as a person,” he explains. “[Legal aid] is why I went to law school and what continues to give significant meaning to my law practice and my life fulfillment.” Now Vice Chair and a partner in DLA Piper’s National Real Estate Group, as well as Chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee, Rich has continued to play an important role at LAF, devoting his time, passion, and expertise as a member of the Board of Directors.

Speak with anyone in the LAF community and they will tell you that Chicago is a city plagued with many social and economic rifts, and your ability to navigate the inevitable obstacles the world will throw your way is determined by which side of those rifts you’re on. It will determine if you can get help when you cannot help yourself.

“I don’t think it’s possible to practice law… without considering how fortunate our clients [in the private sector] are to have the ability to hire capable lawyers,” says Rich.”Juxtapose that with the thousands of Chicagoans in less affluent neighborhoods who have limited or no access to the same justice and legal system that our fee-paying clients take for granted. I don’t feel good if I ignore that juxtaposition, unless I do something about it.”

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Rich Klawiter at LAF’s 2013 Golf Outing.

DLA Piper has been a steadfast ally of LAF for many years, and the firm’s belief in the necessity of legal aid is most emphasized through its employees. LAF is fortunate enough to not only have Rich on the Board, but DLA Piper Associates Katherine C. Jahnke Dale, Christine Bass, Joseph Carey, and Emily Snyder as active members of its Young Professionals Board. Across the country, DLA Piper was recently recognized for its dedication to making the firm’s skills and resources more accessible to pro bono partners- the New York Office received the 2016 President’s Pro Bono Service Award for the Large Law Firm Category from the New York State Bar Association.  In December of 2015, as well as last month, the Chicago office hosted the training “Tight Budgets, Tough Choices,” a training exercise that places participants into positions similar to those lived out by people in poverty, and challenges them to make the same kind of difficult choices LAF’s clients face every day.

Having spent the early years of his legal career in the thick of poverty law, Rich connects deeply with the exercise, having seen these stories played out in his years involved in legal aid. “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is a great exercise, especially when you experience some of what LAF clients must endure on a daily basis. They are faced with making impossible choices that pit one set of needs against another set of needs. Do I pay for my daughter’s books, or go without food for the day? Do I spend money on day care, or leave my child with a relative for the day? Do I spend money on housing in a safe neighborhood at the expense of my son’s private school tuition, or do I send my son to private school and hope and pray that he makes it back to my house alive every day? It is impossible to empathize sufficiently with the plight of this side of Chicago, but it is out there and experiencing it even in the superficial way the simulation allows is pretty compelling stuff and represents a call to action.”  Rich Klawiter heard that call when he decided to take his first steps into LAF’s Englewood Office at the start of his career, and he hasn’t stopped since.  In fact, on June 17 Rich will begin serving his second term as Board President.

DLA Piper is listening, and, more importantly, they are responding.  Their DC office participated in the training last week, it is already slated to take place in the Houston office, and many other office locations are looking into opening the training to their employees as well. Anne Geraghty Helms, Director and Counsel for US Pro Bono Programs at DLA Piper, said that during the Chicago December training a seasoned attorney approached her and said that it was “the best CLE program I have ever gone to.” Others have told her that it should be mandatory for all first year employees.

By joining forces with LAF, and nurturing a culture of social responsibility within the firm, DLA Piper is setting a shining example for its peers in the private sector to emulate, demonstrating how mutually rewarding and important pro bono work truly is to the legal aid community. LAF is proud to partner with DLA Piper, and fortunate to have such an outstanding ambassador in Rich Klawiter. With their help, we continue to help the people of Chicago move forward.