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