Guest Post: Partnering to Help Those in Need During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Colleen Boraca, Clinical Associate Professor, Northern Illinois University College of Law. Colleen recently had to take her law school pro bono clinics virtual due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. She writes about that experience and the role PILI and Illinois Free Legal Answers played.

Each semester and summer, law students at Northern Illinois University College of Law gain valuable, hands-on experience working with clients at one of three legal clinics. Located in Rockford, the Civil Justice Clinic is directed by Professor Wendy Vaughn and the Criminal Defense Clinic is supervised by Professor Paul Cain. I direct the Health Advocacy Clinic which is onsite in Aurora at Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. On typical days in all our clinics, licensed law students represent clients and conduct lawyerly duties such as interviewing clients for Social Security cases, advocating for clients in need of orders of protection, appearing in front of judges on behalf of clients charged with misdemeanors, preparing wills and other legal documents, collaborating with physicians and other professionals, and making a difference in the lives of those impacted by poverty.

Since mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented these typical days. Professors Vaughn, Cain and I had difficult questions to answer. How could we continue to provide law students with real client experiences? How could we make a difference for clients experiencing legal problems as a result of COVID-19?  How could we accomplish these goals while creating a virtual law firm entirely online?

In response, the NIU College of Law COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic was developed. For the summer session, 17 students participated. They took part in weekly virtual office hours and supervision sessions with one of the three clinical professors. The students provided legal advice and referrals to clients via the phone under professor supervision. They addressed a variety of legal matters including SNAP, Medicaid, child custody, divorce, expungement, unemployment, domestic violence and stalking no contact orders of protection, juvenile court abuse and neglect, guardianship of minors, wills, victim economic security and safety act. In seven weeks, approximately 100 people throughout Illinois contacted NIU’s COVID-19 Clinic for help.

Students also participated in a biweekly online seminar class. Some of the classes focused on skills-based development including interviewing, fact investigation and theory of the case. These skills will transfer with our students no matter what area of law they practice. Other seminar classes examined some of the legal issues highlighted by the pandemic and their impact on people living in poverty. These topics included low-wage workers, expungements, domestic violence and public benefits. We knew that the clinic work would be emotionally difficult for students. A professor from NIU’s Department of Psychology presented to students on working as advocates with clients experiencing trauma. A class focused on professional self-care, and a faculty member from the College of Law taught the students about mindfulness.

PILI is an important partner in the NIU COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic. As part of their client experience, students answered questions through PILI’s COVID-19 Illinois Free Legal Answers Task Force. To prepare them, Brent Page, PILI’s Senior Managing Attorney, attended one of our first seminar classes. Brent provided information about PILI and the task force as well as helpful tips for answering questions. Students were enthused to learn about PILI’s work throughout Illinois.

The students I supervised and I had a routine for answering PILI questions. Each week, we would look at new questions in the queue that had been posted and select ones to answer. Students would research answers and prepare memorandums citing the statutes and legal authority for their proposed answers. There were times when students did initial research on a topic and realized it was more complicated than originally anticipated. If they were confident in their research, they drafted proposed answers. I provided feedback on multiple drafts, frequently taking out some of the “legalese” that was originally included. The students and I were excited to post the final answers, hopeful that the information helped those in need. In seven weeks, NIU’s COVID-19 Clinic answered PILI questions on the following topics: child custody, common law marriage, guardianship, completing financial affidavits, unemployment, traffic violations, family law/visitation, employment rights and eligibility for Social Security disability.

Working in the COVID-19 Clinic surprised students. Some students were intrigued by the differing opinions about the pandemic raised in PILI questions. For example, one question asked if someone could quit her job if her employer made her wear a mask while the next question we read asked about receiving unemployment if someone quit a job where an employer was allowing people to not wear masks.

Even though they were not able to work with clients in person, students found the clinic experience beneficial. They were surprised by how emotional clients were during our calls or the text of the PILI questions. Multiple students commented on how hearing these stories helped put into perspective their loss of internships and other changes in law school plans.

The whole experience helped instill in our students a duty to use their legal training to help others. Brittany Harrell, a 3L, states that “I enjoyed answering PILI’s Free Legal Answers questions because it is a safe and convenient way to help others, especially during this difficult time. Answering the questions really reinforced the idea that small actions can have a really big impact on people’s lives, and I plan to continue to answer questions as a pro bono attorney after I become licensed in the Spring.”

NIU’s COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic will continue this fall, and clients needing advice and referrals can contact us at (815) 962-9980. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with PILI and look forward to working together as long as people need our help.

Interested in hosting an Illinois Free Legal Answers Clinic with your students or colleagues? Reach out to PILI Managing Attorney Jessica Schneider to learn more.

New Appellate Pro Bono Opportunity Coming this Fall

Self-represented litigants in the Illinois Appellate Court face many unique challenges without adequate resources to assist them through the appellate process.

Illinois Free Legal Answers for Civil Appeals will be the first-ever virtual legal advice clinic for civil appeals in Illinois and will allow self-represented litigants to submit questions about their appeal through the Illinois Free Legal Answers platform (a project of the American Bar Association). Volunteer attorneys can then answer questions at their convenience and will remain anonymous through the online platform.

Learn more and sign up for future updates here »

Read a press release from the Illinois Supreme Court about this project here »

This program is sponsored by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, and the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI).

Make a Nomination for a PILI Award

Nominations are open for PILI awards to recognize attorneys and legal programs making outstanding contributions in pro bono and public interest law across the state of Illinois. For each award, you can either submit a self-nomination or nominate a colleague. Follow the links below to make your nomination!

PILI Annual Awards

Every year, PILI presents several awards to acknowledge lawyers and legal programs whose dedication to service, fairness, and justice inspires us and makes us proud. The deadline for nominations is Friday, October 2nd.

  • The Distinguished Public Service Award honors an individual whose commitment to public interest work has shaped a career dedicated to service.
  • The Distinguished Alumni Awards recognize one former PILI Intern and one former PILI Fellow for outstanding contributions of public interest and/or pro bono work. Not sure if someone is PILI Alum? Email us to confirm.
  • The Pro Bono Initiative Award acknowledges a single entity for its significant pro bono work in the community.

See a list of past annual award recipients »

Make a nomination for these awards »

Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee Awards

Four of the Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committees are giving circuit-wide pro bono awards to one or more lawyers who have provided outstanding pro bono services to low-income individuals and charitable organizations in their respective judicial circuits. The deadline for nominations is Friday, September 11th.

Connecting with Students Virtually: Highlights from the 2020 Law School Pro Bono Roundtable

On July 29th, law school pro bono leaders met remotely for the Law School Pro Bono Roundtable. This year, the group discussed engaging with law students remotely due to the pandemic.

Sharing an Update from PILI

Brent shared information from the 2020 class of Interns and Fellows as well as insights on how their work shifted this summer. He also let the attendees know that PILI would be hosting Explore the Possibilities remotely at the end of September and that PILI’s pro bono opportunities were continuing remotely.

Engaging Students and Alumni with Illinois Free Legal Answers

The group then went over Illinois Free Legal Answers and some of the attendees discussed how they used the virtual pro bono platform with students. Maureen Stratton from Northwestern shared that they recently hosted a clinic that paired alumni and current students. Lauren Worsek from DePaul shared that they had students and alumni sign up for the program and then she paired them to work independently on questions. Colleen Boraca of NIU shared how her clinic class had used Legal Answers over the summer to provide pro bono legal service remotely.

Using Technology and Finding Creative Public Interest and Pro Bono Opportunities

The group then discussed different pro bono opportunities available through technology including census and voting initiatives. They also discussed how “Zoom Fatigue” was becoming a challenge and creative ways to overcome that issue. The group discussed an initiative out of Nebraska and PILI said they would research possibly working on a similar program that would match law students with needed pro bono research opportunities.

Supporting and Communicating with Law Students During a Pandemic

Maureen Kieffer from Loyola led a discussion about how to work with students whose job search was not going according to plan due to the pandemic. The group also talked about how to engage with students virtually, such as a community circle conversation that Loyola had done recently. The group discussed how connecting during this time was more difficult, but not impossible.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Law School Roundtable. We look forward to seeing you at our Illinois Forum on Pro Bono on November 12, which will bring together pro bono leaders from law firms, corporations, agencies and law schools.

View more resources for agencies »

Learn more about PILI’s Roundtables and Forums »

The Work of Defining Justice Continues

In December 2019, we launched our theme for the year, “Defining Justice.” The concept of justice has always been at the corps of our work since our founding in 1977. And having just adopted a new mission state – PILI engages, inspires and empowers those advancing equal access to justice – it seemed a fitting them for the coming year. Little did we know what 2020 would have in store for all of us, and how much the notion of justice would be both emphasized and challenged in the coming year. Check out the video below, which is how this theme all started.

Over the course of the week of June 15-19, 2020, PILI celebrated its Annual Pro Bono Reception – virtually, for the first time ever. PILI’s Annual Pro Bono Reception celebrates the inspiring and life-changing pro bono work being done in Illinois through effective pro bono programs, innovative partnerships, and the unwavering dedication of individual attorneys and legal professionals. While the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from gathering together in celebration, we firmly believed that even in these challenging times,  there was much to celebrate in terms of the life-changing pro bono work being performed across Illinois. We premiered a new video feature each day in which we talked about notions of justice, especially how justice can be achieved through pro bono work, and celebrated the work of PILI through its Pro Bono Program and all of those who contribute their time and talent to helping individuals, families and communities in need through pro bono work.

Schedule of Events: 2020 Virtual Annual Pro Bono Reception

Day One: The celebration kicked-off with PILI Board President Sarah Bernstein and Executive Director Michael Bergmann. Watch Monday’s video on our YouTube channel »

Day Two: Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke joined us to deliver remarks and to congratulate the law firms and corporations named to PILI’s 2020 Pro Bono Recognition Roster. Watch Tuesday’s video on our YouTube channel »

Day Three: PILI Executive Director sat down with ABA President Judy Perry Martinez for a discussion about how lawyers can help during this time through pro bono service and legal aid. Watch Wednesday’s video on our YouTube channel »

Day Four: Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul joined us to deliver remarks and to congratulate those individuals named to PILI’s inaugural Pro Bono Volunteer Honor Roll. Watch Thursday’s video on our YouTube channel »

Day Five: We wrapped up the celebration. Watch Friday’s video on our YouTube channel »

In addition to being a celebration, PILI’s Annual Pro Bono Reception is also an inportant fundraiser that supports our work. Like many nonprofits, we are facing financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, including falling short of our budget goal for this year’s event. Your support will ensure that we can maintain and grow our Pro Bono Program to help more people in need obtain access to justice. Won’t you make a donation today to help support our work and our mission to engage, inspire and empower those advancing equal access to justice? You can make a gift through our secure website at or by texting “PILI” to 243-725. Any amount will help support our work and we are grateful for the support! There are also many other ways to get involved with our work.

We hope you will join us in defining justice!

Annual Pro Bono Reception Wraps Up

The final day of PILI’s virtual Annual Pro Bono Reception is today!  As we said when we announced we were holding this event virtually, even in these challenging times, there is much to celebrate in terms of the life-changing pro bono work being performed across Illinois. We hope you agree that it has been a terrific week of celebration.

As we wrap up the celebration today, here is a special video message from John Bourke, Vice President of the PILI Board of Directors:

Like many nonprofits, we are facing financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Your support will ensure that we can maintain and grow our Pro Bono Program to help more people in need obtain access to justice. As John stated, we have a goal to raise an additional $10,000 from individual donors as part of our Annual Pro Bono Reception. Won’t you make a donation today to help support our work and our mission to engage, inspire and empower those advancing equal access to justice? You can make a gift through our secure website at or by texting “PILI” to 243-725. Any amount will help support our work and we are grateful for the support! There are also many other ways to get involved with our work. We hope you will join us in defining justice!

Thank you again to Chief Justice Anne Burke, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez, and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul for joining us this week.

Thank you as well as to all of our generous sponsors for supporting PILI through this event and throughout the year. Especially in these challenging and uncertain times, your steadfast and unwavering support is most appreciated.

Congratulations again to all the members of the Pro Bono Recognition Roster and Pro Bono Volunteer Honor Roll! We are so very grateful for the pro bono leadership of those law firms and corporations we recognized, and for all of the individual volunteers who give of their time and talent in helping individuals, families and communities in need.

And, thank YOU for joining us this week and throughout the year to both define justice and help make it a reality for all.

Seven Volunteers Named to PILI’s Inaugural Pro Bono Volunteer Honor Roll

As part of our 2020 virtual Annual Pro Bono Reception, we introduced PILI’s Pro Bono Volunteer Honor Roll. Those recognized through our Honor Roll have been chosen by PILI staff for their volunteer contributions through the pro bono opportunities available through PILI’s Pro Bono Program. We are so grateful to these extraordinary volunteers whom we regularly rely on to help individuals, families and communities in need through our statewide pro bono opportunities.

Seven volunteers were named to the inaugural Honor Roll, announced and recognized on Thursday, June 18, 2020 during PILI’s virtual Annual Pro Bono Reception.

David Callahan

Legal Prep Community Law Clinic

Dave has been a champion of the Legal Prep Clinic at Latham & Watkins for several years, rallying colleagues to join him at the clinic and take on matters. He has taken several cases through the clinic, many involving extensive litigation. He is currently defending a client in an inappropriately filed breach of contract suit.

Sandy Crow

Tenth Circuit Self-Represented Litigant Help Desks

Sandy is a paralegal who volunteers at our courthouse help desks at Peoria and Tazewell County Courthouses. She volunteers for nearly every date of the help desks, even though she is retired and cut down on a lot of her other commitments.

Abigail Fleming

Legal Help Within Reach

Abigail was an integral partner in organizing a clinic to get Wills & Powers of Attorney for recent recipients of Habitat for Humanity Homes in Peoria. She also regularly volunteers with our other projects and is one of our go-to volunteers.


Mitch Gilfillan

Conflict of Interest Pro Bono Referral Project

Mitch has volunteered more hours and taken more cases than any of our other volunteers. He is the one we go to when we need somebody because it’s almost guaranteed he’ll take the case.


Brian Kalb

Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network

Brian Kalb is a veteran and has taken several cases through the IL-AFLAN program. He assisted a veteran who was having difficulty obtaining a drivers license and currently is assisting a client with a probate matter trying to ensure the client is able to keep his home.

Jennifer Kincaid

Illinois Free Legal Answers

Jennifer has answered over 700 questions from low-income clients on the Illinois Free Legal Answers website since its inception in 2016. This is 200 more than anyone else in the state!


Daniel Thies

Sixth Circuit Self-Represented Litigant Help Desks

Daniel has volunteered more times than anyone else at the Champaign County Courthouse help desks that we launched early last year. He has become a star volunteer in the area and someone we can rely on to help those in need.


The Honor Roll was announced in the video below with the help of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

To learn more about PILI’s pro bono opportunities or our Pro Bono Volunteer Honor Roll, please contact PILI Managing Attorney Jessica Schneider at 312-832-5125 or by email.