Pro Bono

As one of the initiatives of her tenure as IJA President, Judge Barbara Crowder (Ret.) has established a Pro Bono Committee. Under the leadership of Justice Thomas Kilbride (Ret.) and Judge Julie Katz, the IJA Pro Bono Committee is meant to highlight the great unmet need for pro bono legal services across our state, and to highlight ways in which sitting judges can support and encourage pro bono and retired judges can provide pro bono service. The IJA is partnering with the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) on this project.

WHY IS THIS NEEDED?

There are millions of people in Illinois living in or near poverty for whom basic fundamentals like health care, housing, food, safety and employment are often out of reach. According to the Social IMPACT Research Center of Heartland Alliance, poverty in Illinois remains persistently high, negatively impacting people and families across the state. Currently, 12.1 percent of Illinoisans, or over 1.5 million people, are living below the poverty threshold. As this data does not yet take into account the impact of the pandemic on our community, we expect that the percentage and number living in poverty may be substantially higher. Many others also live near poverty, struggle to make ends meet for their families and cannot afford an attorney if they need legal help.

Published in 2003, The Legal Aid Safety Net: A Report on the Legal Needs of Low-Income Illinoisans reported on the findings of a study documenting the legal needs of low-income Illinois residents, and to better understand the legal aid system designed to meet those needs. The research conducted as a part of this effort reveals that low-income Illinoisans faced over 1.3 million civil legal problems in 2003, ranging from child custody disputes to mortgage foreclosures to cases involving the physical and financial abuse of the elderly. These findings mirrored a similar study conducted in 1989.

Illinois is fortunate to have a dedicated and hardworking legal aid community which tries to help all our fellow Illinoisans in need of free legal assistance. However, there are less than 500 full-time legal aid attorneys across the entire state. Lawyers providing pro bono legal assistance are therefore a crucial component in the delivery of legal services to individuals, families and communities in need. In 2020, according to the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission, 31,325 lawyers performed 1.8 million hours in legal services, which would equate to an average of 60 hours of pro bono services per lawyer. While this is indeed an impressive number, given the number of lawyers in Illinois, it means that only about one-third reported doing any pro bono during that year.

MORE ABOUT THIS INITIATIVE

Sitting judges can play a critical role in supporting pro bono legal services across our state. Retired judges can contribute their knowledge and skills in performing pro bono legal services for those in need. The Pro Bono Committee will work on a variety of efforts over the next year to share ways in which IJA members can further their involvement in supporting or performing pro bono legal services. The Committee currently has three subcommittees: Illinois Free Legal Answers, Pro Bono Spotlights and Pro Bono Week Event Planning.

The IJA kicked off this initiative with a free education program for IJA members on June 22, 2021. The program was titled, “Ethics & Pro Bono: How Judges and Retired Judges Can Help” and attendees received judicial education or MCLE credit. The program was recorded, and credit can still be provided for those who watch the recorded version. To learn more, visit www.pili.org/illinois-judges-association-educational-program/.

Illinois Free Legal Answers

Illinois Free Legal Answers is a secure website where low-income Illinoisans can ask a lawyer for help with a civil legal issue. Volunteer lawyers then log onto the site at their convenience and answer questions waiting in the queue. It is a virtual walk-in legal clinic and is a great “bite-sized” or limited scope pro bono opportunity. A project of the American Bar Association, Free Legal Answers was created to increase access to advice and information about non-criminal legal matters for those who cannot afford legal assistance. It is now active in 41 jurisdictions within the United States, including Illinois. The Public Interest Law Initiative, or PILI, is the statewide administrator for Illinois Free Legal Answers, responsible for recruiting and supporting pro bono volunteers and overall management of the site.

Any lawyer who is registered as active and authorized to practice with the ARDC can volunteer, including those with inactive or retired status and out-of- state licensed attorneys subject to the requirements of Supreme Court Rule 756. Over the next year, IJA members who are retired judges will be encouraged to volunteer through this site to provide brief advice and assistance to those in need. IJA will be able to track and report on the number of IJA members who sign up to volunteer as well as the number of questions answered by IJA volunteers. The subcommittee will be working on promoting this opportunity and organizing virtual volunteer clinics that will be held in 2022 in each appellate district.

To learn more, visit www.pili.org/pro-bono/legal-answers/.

Pro Bono Spotlights

Each month the IJA will spotlight an IJA member who is providing significant support of pro bono or outstanding pro bono legal assistance. The Pro Bono Spotlights subcommittee will be choosing those IJA members to spotlight and the spotlight which will be available on IJA’s website and promoted on social media.

To read the spotlights, visit www.ija.memberclicks.net/ija-pro-bono-spotlight.

Pro Bono Week Event Planning

Each October, the American Bar Association is joined by the nationwide legal community in celebrating Pro Bono Week. In 2021, Pro Bono Week will be October 24-30. Pro Bono Week is an opportunity to celebrate the amazing and life changing pro bono work being done by volunteer lawyers and legal professionals. The subcommittee will be planning a virtual event to be held during Pro Bono Week for IJA members to be part of the celebration. Stay tuned for more information to come soon.

NEED MORE INFORMATION

Interested in learning more about this project or want to get involved? Contact Kathy Hosty at the IJA [email protected] or Michael Bergmann with PILI by email.

Interested in other pro bono opportunities? Visit https://cbf.joinpaladin.com/ to find a vast array of pro bono opportunities across the state.