In the spring of 2015, the Center for Law and Social Work (CLSW) was having a serious problem. They were receiving more calls from people who needed help with adoptions than they were able to help.
“We had a high volume of clients contacting our agency for adoption matters,” said Kristie Kunstman-Stern, the Director of Legal Services at CLSW. “We’re a small not-for-profit, so there were only so many cases we could handle and it got to the point where we had to turn people away.”
Many of the cases coming to CLSW were uncontested adoptions. These cases usually involved relatives of a child, such as grandparents, who were already the primary caregivers. They wanted to make the relationship official through adoption to provide a more stable environment for the child, and to be able to make day-to-day decisions on behalf of the child. Many times, the parents consented to the adoption. Even though the adoption would be amicable, the paperwork and court proceedings made the process difficult without the help of an attorney, and these clients could not afford to hire one.
CLSW began brainstorming how to help these families and decided to reach out to their Board of Directors. One of their board members knew a partner at Kirkland & Ellis and set up introductions. Elise Tincher, Kirkland’s Chicago Pro Bono Counsel, got involved and together with Kristie decided to set up the Adoption Project at Kirkland.
The project was a natural fit with Kirkland’s pro bono program. Kirkland’s commitment to pro bono work has established them as not only a critical supporter of legal services in Chicago, in Illinois, and across the country, but also as a leader in pro bono, providing innovative programs, high quality representation, and literally thousands of hours of pro bono work to low-income individuals and families. In 2015, partners and associate attorneys in Kirkland’s Chicago office alone contributed more than 43,700 hours of pro bono work in partnership with 20+ Chicago-area legal service agencies.
Even so, building a pro bono project from the ground up would take work, and Elise and Kristie wanted to do it right.
“For me, I wanted to make sure the attorneys at Kirkland & Ellis were comfortable,” said Kristie. “Even if adoption was an area of law they’d never done, I wanted them to be confident in their abilities.”
Kristie and Elise worked through the summer and into the fall, setting up the project and creating a training binder to help attorneys work with clients.
“I went back and forth with Kristie, reviewing and revising materials, making sure that what was provided would be an accessible tool for our attorneys, almost none of whom had done an adoption before,” said Elise. “It was definitely a process, but a good process that resulted in a seamless launch. It’s been such a good project in part because we took so much time up front.”
When the project did launch last October, CLSW began referring uncontested adoption cases to attorneys at Kirkland. To date, 21 attorneys have signed up for the project and 17 attorneys have volunteered on a case. This was the first time CLSW had worked with a law firm in this way. It was unchartered territory, and while clients were grateful, some were a little nervous.
“A lot of the families we work with are more used to dealing with social services and nonprofit organizations,” said Kristie. One family in particular wondered whether the Kirkland attorneys were going to be able to understand their situation.
Meg Gibson and Donna Welch, the Kirkland partners who are leading the Adoption Project, got involved for personal reasons. Each had been through the process before when they adopted their own children.
“Helping others to finalize their family plans and to ensure security and stability for the children in their lives could not be more important to me both personally and professionally,” said Donna.
Meg, who is an active adoption advocate even outside the project, agrees. “Adoption is one of the most effective charitable causes,” she said. “There’s nothing that has a higher impact on a child than adoption.”
It didn’t take Kristie long to receive a call from the same nervous family as before to let her know what a great experience they had working with Kirkland. “I’ve had clients cry they were so happy,” Kristie said. “Kirkland has just been amazing.”
The attorneys at Kirkland have also found the project extremely rewarding. “Even though they may have already been effectively parenting the child, it’s just different when you can say this is my daughter or this is my son,” explained Meg. “There is a lot of administrative paperwork that creates barriers for people who aren’t lawyers and it’s intimidating to go to court without a lawyer. The least we can do is to help make the process easier.”