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Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of PILI's Pro Bono Initiative for the New Millennium

We interviewed some of the individuals who were with PILI from the beginning of our Pro Bono Initiative for the New Millennium for their thoughts on the past, present, and future of pro bono work in Illinois.

  • Tom Dorris, PILI Life Director & 1998-2000 President
  • David Erie, PILI Board Member & 2000-2002 President
  • Susan Shulman, founding PILI Pro Bono Initiative Director
  • Pauline Levy, McDonald’s Corporation

The Connection to PILI & the Pro Bono Initiative

Tom Dorris became President of PILI’s Board of Directors in 1998, while PILI was developing and launched the Pro Bono Initiative for the New Millennium. David Erie was Vice President of PILI’s Board of Directors (and succeeded Tom as president) when the Pro Bono Initiative was established and participated in the Pro Bono Summit. Susan Shulman was the founding Pro Bono Initiative Director, and during her tenure, she consulted with over 70 law firms and corporations on launching and reinvigorating their pro bono programs. Pauline Levy first heard about PILI as her Legal Department at McDonald’s received an invitation to participate in the Pro Bono Summit and ultimately helped start the pro bono program at McDonald’s.

Pro Bono at the Turn of the Century

Susan noted that some while pro bono work was being done back in 1999, it was mainly being done in law firms. However, she added that there was no organization responsible for coordinating, supporting or expanding pro bono work. Similarly, Pauline shared that prior to PILI, many corporations had some attorneys performing pro bono work on an ad hoc basis, but there were no formal programs or resources available, and the work was limited. From Tom’s perspective, the pro bono world was much smaller prior to 1999. He indicated that there were only a few individuals at some law firms who had a desire to do pro bono work or support pro bono activities, and there was no organization like PILI to provide support and resources. David observed that, at the time, you really saw the pro bono work of corporations increase through PILI's involvement, and you saw law firms and corporations partnering together on pro bono projects in ways that had not been done before.

The Evolution of Pro Bono

Tom credits PILI for many of the changes in pro bono service and culture amongst the law firms and corporate legal departments in Illinois over the last 25 years. David said that PILI helped advance pro bono service by engaging corporate legal departments in a way they have never been before, while also encouraging law firms to do more and in a more coordinated way. Pauline expressed that the Pro Bono Initiative made a huge difference, noting that the amount of pro bono work performed by corporations today has skyrocketed. Susan reflected that a lot of people wanted to do pro bono but were afraid of getting a case that might consume them. She thought that great strides had been made by legal aid providers in developing pro bono opportunities that are better tailored to meet their interests and abilities, while also coming up with more "bite-sized" opportunities.

The Importance of Pro Bono & Pro Bono Service

Pauline explained that some of the most satisfying experiences of her career have been through the pro bono work she has performed. She said, “we literally can change lives for the better through this work. I can’t think of a better way to use my law degree.” David shared his view that pro bono service is a fantastic opportunity to grow as an individual and within your profession. He shared, “the main point [of pro bono] is to help the people that you are helping. But the byproduct is that you’re a better person, as you become more aware, more sensitive, more understanding, and more appreciative.” Tom shared that his interest in pro bono started even before he went to law school. He said, “pro bono was something I wanted to do, and I think every lawyer should participate in pro bono.” Susan talked about how lawyers have a monopoly on legal services, and therefore have a responsibility to do that work. She said, “You will make such a difference in someone’s life that you will remind yourself as to why you really went to law school.”

Looking to the Future for PILI & Pro Bono

Susan shared that PILI has done a great job at expanding its Pro Bono Program to what it is today and hopes that it will continue to make it easier for the legal community to do pro bono work. Tom shared that he was very proud of PILI and its evolution into what it is today, making PILI such an important part of the pro bono community in Illinois. For David, he believes PILI has grown into one of the leading organizations in the state of Illinois for engaging law students and lawyers in public interest law and pro bono service opportunities for getting people involved. He hopes that PILI will continue to be a great source to get people involved with pro bono service while helping them make a lifetime commitment to pro bono. Pauline shared that she still gets regular calls from other legal departments trying to start pro bono programs and is glad that PILI continues to – and hopes it will into the future – provide logistical support to those departments.