By Nicole NeSmith, CARPLS Development & Communications Associate
CARPLS is proud of its partnerships with many Chicago-area and Illinois organizations, including this month’s feature on the Pro Bono Network. CARPLS’ Everyday Justice Blog is a showcase for all of us who are working towards the mission of access to justice.
In 2016, Forbes called Pro Bono Network (PBN) the “Uber of Legal Aid.” With nearly 400 volunteer lawyers in their base, over 21,000 completed volunteer hours, and over 3,700 clients serviced to date, PBN is a force in the Cook County legal aid community.
Nearly a decade ago, attorney and founder Donna Peel was a stay-at-home mother searching for meaningful volunteer legal work, but the volunteer opportunities offered at the time did not match her time constraints. She brought together a dozen or so like-minded friends and colleagues and they came up with the Pro Bono Network and a few projects in 2011. This included Lawyers in the Classroom, U Visa Immigration, and Senior Center Initiatives.
The Pro Bono Network decided early on to partner with legal aid agencies in the Chicago area and instituted a “sharing economy principles” model to match part-time lawyers, doing pro bono work when it fits their schedule, with existing volunteer opportunities. The key was competently providing a pipeline of volunteers that could fill these agencies’ needs. The Pro Bono Network is nationally recognized for its innovative partnership and engagement of volunteers through job sharing.
This model made a big difference versus using individual volunteers, because it allowed a level of flexibility not present in other volunteer opportunities and offered training for volunteers to hone their skills. CARPLS’ relationship with PBN was a great example of this. If a particular volunteer had to cancel their assignment at our Consumer Law Desk, for instance, Pro Bono Network had someone else in the queue to send in their place. If a volunteer had a sick child or their schedule changed because of their responsibilities, they were not penalized—PBN simply worked with them and found a sub.
Pat Wrona, CARPLS’ Legal Director, says Pro Bono Network has been a great source of pro bono volunteers for CARPLS and for the greater legal aid community.
“I remember when I first heard about PBN, I thought, why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? PBN’s stable of extremely talented volunteer attorneys, many of whom worked at large law firms and corporations doing very high level legal work, are now available to help legal aid clients, using their exceptional legal skills. It’s the perfect marriage of bringing together the great need for free legal services, with an amazing volunteer legal workforce that can address that need in a way that works for everyone. It’s really a brilliant model.”
Now, the Pro Bono Network currently manages several projects in the areas of adult guardianship, divorce, domestic violence, immigration, incarcerated mothers, lawyers in the classroom, online legal counseling, seniors clinics, social security, tenant advocacy, a veterans’ clinic, and will drafting.
PBN offers volunteers many quick service opportunities such as drafting a will or participating in seniors clinics, while also delving into more complicated cases that involve immigration or domestic violence. It’s even easier to take part thanks to PBN’s comprehensive training and the agencies’ malpractice insurance for volunteers.
“We try to tailor cases to experience and also the volunteer’s interest,” said Linda Rio, Pro Bono Network’s Executive Director.
Prior to joining PBN, Linda was an associate at Sidley Austin LLP, Director of Community Services at the Chicago Bar Association, and the Founding Director of the Child Custody and Adoption Pro Bono Project at the American Bar Association before taking time off to raise her kids.
“When I saw the job posting a few years ago, I knew it was a great opportunity to run a legal agency and learn new things about growing a volunteer base and how everyone’s experience matters,” Linda says.
She could also relate to the stay-at-home mothers who initially found it difficult to reintegrate into the legal world, which is challenging no matter what the field. For many women, volunteering through the Pro Bono Network has served as an opportunity to make a meaningful impact and demonstrate leadership skills that have translated into jobs. Though Pro Bono Network has since expanded, Linda admires the unique setup of their team.
“I’ve never been in an agency that has an all-female staff. It’s a very supportive group. Stay at home parents are still 1/3 of our volunteer base, but we also have a pretty diverse pool of volunteers with part-time attorneys, retired attorneys, and those who have transferred from another state. We try to be collaborative and have different people and experience levels represented.”
CARPLS Staff Attorney Shama Ahmed, who has volunteered with Pro Bono Network since 2011 and joined the board in 2014, found her CARPLS position through PBN.
“Like many in that original group, I took time off to be with my young children. When I was ready to reenter the official workforce, I really think my experience with PBN was a huge factor in opening up opportunities, as PBN allowed me to delve into other areas of law, form a network of professional colleagues and ultimately fill the gap in my resume in a fulfilling way,” Shama says. “I think for a lot of volunteers, it really gave us the confidence to continue practicing law.”
CARPLS Staff Attorney Christy Chapman found out about the Pro Bono Network from a friend of Donna Peel’s right as she was starting the Network. “I thought, this is an opportunity for me to use my legal skills and education. I took one project, then others, got comfortable, and then I just dove in.”
Christy also found the CARPLS position through volunteering and joined the Network’s board in 2015. “It’s such a unique model. So many agencies try to have volunteers carry some of the load to promote their missions and Pro Bono Network partners to bring those volunteers right to them. And for the volunteers, it means a lot to be able to use their legal skills to help others.”
Prior to volunteering and working at PBN four years ago, Marisa Green was having trouble finding volunteer opportunities since her license had become inactive.
Marisa eventually became their staff project manager for the senior legal clinic and senior center initiative and says she enjoys interfacing with the various volunteers and loves that everyone puts the client first.
“PBN provides opportunities for lawyers to volunteer whether the status of their license is active, inactive or retired,” she says. “The volunteer opportunity and my subsequent position was a perfect fit for me.”
Marisa helps seniors through the Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL) with real estate issues, landlord-tenant disputes, will drafting, divorces, and power of attorney drafting for health care and property. She also helps veterans at CDEL’s clinic located at the Hines VA.
“I love working with clients because there’s a huge need in the community for people who don’t have resources. We really make a difference,” Marisa says.
Caroline Manley, Executive Director of the Center for Disability & Elder Law, says PBN is an outstanding model for pro bono. She’s been working with them her “entire career.” In 2011, Pro Bono Network was CDEL’s first partner to help staff its Senior Legal Assistance Clinics. Now, they partner on four of CDEL’s 10 clinics in various Cook County locations, meeting several times a month. In 2018 alone, PBN provided nearly 900 volunteer hours to CDEL through multiple projects.
“It’s been wonderful to get to grow with them over the years and to come up with some creative solutions together so CDEL can provide better services,” Caroline says. “They really make it easy on the legal aid provider in that they have a project lead for each project and they take responsibility for their volunteers, making it effortless for CDEL to partner with them.”
Pro Bono Network has expanded over the last few years to help meet the client’s needs for resources. They started without an office and just a few people in their corner, but in the years since, the organization now has a permanent location in Oak Park, hundreds of volunteers, and enormous respect from the legal aid community.
“A lot of this growth is due to our strategic plan,” Linda says. “We went from three part-time staff members to five part-time staff and two contractors. We moved to a much larger office space in February 2019. We have increased the number of clients served, the number of volunteer attorneys, and the number of volunteer hours continues to grow. In 2012, we totaled 3,344 volunteer hours, and in 2019, we nearly doubled that at 6,600 hours. We also expanded some projects to DuPage County and hope to have more involvement there.”
Because of the success, Linda says the organization is now taking the time to be reflective. Next year, PBN will celebrate their 10-year anniversary. Linda expects they will continue to increase the number of volunteer hours, clients served, and active volunteers. They also aim to look at other innovative ways to use talented volunteers and reach potentially new types of volunteer attorneys.
“We can’t take on all projects we are asked to, but we need to keep to our model and make sure our getting involved is adding value,” Linda says. “We are very happy with what we have accomplished so far.”
Ultimately, Linda says Pro Bono Network’s MO is to help clients and to be supportive of volunteers.
“We think we have helped add to the current legal aid system in Chicago, and that other cities would benefit from establishing a similar agency model. Though, we don’t want to get too big too fast so that we can’t listen and provide our special model.”
If you are interested in learning more or becoming a volunteer, visit www.pro-bono-network.org/!