Since opening in 1977, Prairie State Legal Services, Inc. has been responding to the civil legal needs of eligible Illinoisans across a 36-county area in northern and central Illinois. From the beginning, Prairie State has recognized the need to involve the local legal community in its efforts, operating a pro bono program in some form for over thirty years. Prairie State’s regional offices have local pro bono coordinators who have developed strong relationships in their communities and match cases to pro bono attorneys. In an effort to facilitate even more pro bono work, Prairie State recently created the position of Director of Volunteer Services, filled by Prairie State attorney, Marisa Wiesman. The goal of this position is to centralize the coordination of Prairie State’s pro bono programs at an organization-wide level, and to have one person who can share model successes and lessons learned between counties while directly assisting volunteer attorneys on their pro bono cases.
“There are a lot of people out there who really need the assistance of a pro bono attorney,” Wiesman says, adding that sometimes there’s a misconception that legal aid organizations in an area are able to meet the needs of all the people who need services. “While we do great work for our clients, we are only scratching the surface. There are thousands of people who never make it to us,” she explains. “Even when clients do access our services, there are many clients we cannot fully serve because we simply don’t have the resources to do so.”
Wiesman is quick to acknowledge the significant pro bono work already happening in Prairie State’s service area, as well as the room for more to happen. Some attorneys are hesitant to get involved in pro bono work, Wiesman says, citing uncertainty about the commitment or time involved, or a lack of familiarity with the area of law and reluctance to learn something new. Prairie State helps to overcome these hesitations by building pro bono programs that recognize that everyone has a different comfort level. Wiesman doesn’t want pro bono attorneys to think that signing on to do pro bono work means a contested case that will last for years. In practice, Prairie State matches the volunteer attorney with the type of case and commitment desired. The amount of support Prairie State provides depends on the geographic area, the volunteer and the case. Some volunteers handle pro bono cases with minimal involvement from Prairie State, while other projects are more structured and collaborative. Either way, volunteer attorney receive expert training and support from Prairie State. “Pro bono is easier than people think,” Wiesman says, adding that Prairie State welcomes volunteers throughout its service area, which includes the collar counties of DuPage, Lake, Kane, Will and McHenry. Pro bono opportunities are available outside of regular business hours and at the beginning and end of the work day, which can be ideal for attorneys working in Chicago and living in these collar county communities.
One example of a structured pro bono opportunity Prairie State offers is their new Social Security pro bono projects in their St. Charles and Waukegan offices. In St. Charles, attorney and non-attorney volunteers assist clients with their Social Security disability applications, increasing the likelihood of approval by submitting a strong application from the start. In Waukegan, volunteer attorneys assist clients at the reconsideration stage of appeal if their initial disability application has been denied. Wiesman highlights these projects as particularly good pro bono opportunities for corporate attorneys, non-litigators, or people more comfortable with transactional work, since the work involves gathering documents and writing a persuasive letter on behalf of the client, rather than representation at a hearing. Wiesman also emphasizes that volunteers don’t need prior Social Security experience, because Prairie State provides specific trainings for both of these pro bono opportunities. Another time-limited, non-litigation pro bono opportunity is with Prairie State’s telephone counseling program in Waukegan and Wheaton. Volunteers provide legal advice to clients over the phone, get direct client interaction, and can see the immediate impact of their pro bono work.
Wiesman makes a point to city the reward involved in pro bono work. “Legal aid handles cases that affect basic human needs,” she says. “A pro bono attorney can save a family’s home in the matter of a few hours, or keep someone safe from an abuser. Even working on one case in a year has a measureable impact on a person’s life.”
With a staff of over 100, Prairie State works daily to meet the civil legal needs of eligible northern and central Illinois residents in its thirty-six county service area. “We have a very committed staff, who are performing legal work at the highest level,” Weisman states. “We also have a lot of young attorneys on staff right now, and they are so impressive.” But recognizing that they can’t meet the vast need for legal services alone, with this new Director of Volunteer Services position and with the continuous addition of new pro bono opportunities, Prairie State is developing new ways to engage pro bono volunteers.