“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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Winston & Strawn: Setting up for the Future

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It is inspiring to see the number of for-profit law firms in Chicago that have active pro bono programs. These firms help balance the scales of justice by creating opportunities for their attorney’s to use their expertise to help those who are otherwise unable to afford their services. Winston & Strawn LLP has taken a leading role in pro bono work, receiving nearly 90 awards over the past decade for its efforts which include a longstanding relationship with LAF and the legal aid community.

The support of Winston & Strawn has long helped LAF maintain its position on the forefront of legal aid work in Cook County. Members of the firm have been pillars of our organization for many years, lending their strength and guidance through the good times and the more challenging: Lawrence Desideri, a partner at Winston & Strawn, currently serves on LAF’s Board of Directors, and former Board members include Gary Johnson- now President of the Chicago History Museum, and current partner, Sam Park.  One of LAF’s longest serving and most outstanding Board members was Mary Hutchings Reed, a retired Winston & Strawn partner and dedicated supporter of legal aid. Mary was one of the founding organizers of LAF’s much beloved annual Golf Outing and generously donated one of the most sought after silent auction items at the annual Justice Is Served event: good times, good food, and good company while sailing aboard her and her husband’s boat on Lake Michigan. Last year, LAF recognized Mary for her generosity over the many years as a Champion for Justice and role model of legal aid advocacy.

In turn, former LAF employees have found positions at Winston & Strawn that allow them to continue to nurture the passion for public interest law that first brought them into the legal aid profession. “The best part of my job at LAF was working with inspiring clients who showed me the most tremendous strength in the face of adversity,” says LAF alum Maria Kutnick.

Maria now works as Pro Bono Manager at Winston & Strawn, overseeing the firm’s West Coast and Houston offices, and sharing responsibility for the Chicago office. She also supervises the immigration pro bono practice attorney based in the Los Angeles office, manages the national immigration pro bono practice, and connects Winston & Strawn attorneys to pro bono opportunities.  “There was never a shortage of clients in need who were all equally deserving of quality legal representation. My transition to Winston afforded me the ability and resources to continue to provide assistance to these clients but on a much larger scale.”

Winston & Strawn employees are proactively and wholeheartedly engaging with the future of public interest law and legal aid. In 2007, LAF honored Winston & Strawn attorneys Kimball and Karen Anderson for their commitment to the legal aid community and the people of Chicago. Kimball and Karen understand intimately the challenges young lawyers face when entering the legal profession, a struggle compounded by astronomical law school bills. The Anderson Fellowship aims to help abate law school debt for an exceptional young lawyer pursuing a career in public interest law. Three LAF employees have received Anderson Fellowships: Dennericka Brooks, Senior Attorney in the Housing Practice Group, in 2008, Miguel Keberlein Gutierrez, Director of the Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, in 2007, and former LAF employee Sarah Biehl, in 2006.

All of these extraordinary individuals are reflective of the sense of social-responsibility that is alive and thriving in Winston & Strawn’s offices. The firm’s employees are motivated by vision of a more equal future, and they are striving to create a legal system that is accessible and full of people as passionate about this goal as they are. We are tremendously grateful to have them on our team here at LAF.

The Giving Kind

Catherine Masters and Schiff Hardin Foster a Pro Bono Mentality

“We do not restrict the kinds of pro bono work our lawyers handle. Instead we encourage them to pursue their pro bono passions,” reads Schiff Hardin’s pro bono page. It is encouragement that Schiff’s attorneys thrive on, and there is perhaps no better single example of what the support of for-profit firm can do for a not-for-profit legal aid organization than Catherine Masters, a partner at Schiff Hardin. Catherine has been an invaluable member of LAF’s Board of Directors since 2014, and currently serves as Co-Chair of the Board Fundraising Committee.  Catherine also collaborates with LAF attorneys on complex cases. Most recently, she assisted LAF in successfully appealing a case before the Illinois Supreme Court, recovering unemployment benefits for an LAF client.

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Photo from Schiff Hardin

“Everyone deserves access to justice — especially those with limited financial means, whose legal problems have magnified (even existential) importance,” says Catherine in an article released internally at Schiff Hardin. “We all work on high-profile matters, but no higher profile issue exists than the life issues LAF’s clients face: securing a safe home, appropriate education, employment, freedom from abuse, opportunity.”

For her pro bono work and counsel, Schiff Hardin awarded Catherine its June 2016 Community Service Award. In additional recognition of her commitment to public interest law and her belief in the necessity of legal aid, the firm has made a generous donation to LAF to celebrate its 50th year. Schiff has created a work environment that fosters public aid and volunteer action, and it  has, in the true spirit of a volunteer, turned its efforts outwards to LAF and other legal aid organizations. LAF is grateful for the firm’s years of support and partnership, and admires Schiff Hardin and Catherine Masters for making pro bono work a priority.

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.