In a time when folks are asking themselves how they can help, legal service organizations are providing the answer in a clear and consistent form that is not only easy to carry out, but inherently reformative of our system.

Paladin is honored to amplify and elevate the experiences of our legal service organization partners and their work that makes our world more equitable. We turn our first spotlight to Legal Aid Chicago and its Director of Volunteer Services, Melissa O. Picciola.

Legal Service Organizations: Reform In Practice.

Legal service organizations take the concept of reforming our legal, cultural system and apply it by disrupting barriers to accessing justice in a daily, grassroots manner. This work’s impact compounds and magnifies with every single client served, and can take just minutes of an attorney’s time. Picciola is a great example of how legal aid leaders dissolve the barriers around providing simple, but integral legal assistance through two community-based legal clinics, offering pro-bono opportunities for single-appearance hearings and implementing a remote help desk. At times, a mere ten minutes of legal assistance can reroute the course of a client’s life. For example, Picciola describes attorneys helping clients navigate complex administrative agency systems noting that even “making a phone call to a government agency can make a difference.” In addition, remote help desk pro bono activities like making calls on a client’s behalf are brief and have no follow up commitment, yet, they can be the best method to get resources to economically vulnerable families. It is such an immense privilege to have legal knowledge of our system that just a brief contribution of an attorney’s time to pro bono work shifts our society for the better.

Pro Bono Litigation Assistance: Rights for Communities, Growth for Attorneys

But what happens when the client’s need is greater than a brief consultation and assistance? Legal Aid Chicago answers that need by also offering pro-bono opportunities at the state and federal level handling cases from start to finish. In those cases, Picciola attests that her “job is to make things easier for the pro bono attorneys to help our clients,” and accordingly, her staff works hard to support volunteer attorneys throughout the process. While longer term representation cases might seem intimidating, litigation-based pro bono opportunities need not intimidate attorneys who lack experience in the pro-bono case practice area for three key reasons.

First, centering the communities helped through the pro-bono work will ground attorneys and bring fulfillment that obscures the initial jitters attorneys may feel when considering a pro-bono case. Picciola explains that when attorneys “find a population that [they’re] passionate about, the hard parts will become easier because [they] know [they’re] working towards an end goal that [they] want to achieve for someone.”

Second, just understanding the outcome differentials for clients who do have legal aid versus those who don’t can bring assurance to attorneys taking on pro-bono litigation cases. In particular, Picciola reports that “just by having an attorney by their side makes an enormous difference to clients’ courtroom outcomes. The difference between having an attorney and not having an attorney is stark.” It follows that when attorneys take litigation cases, they ensure our constitutional promise to provide equal protection under the law is not only rhetoric, but also reality.

Third, on a personal level, attorneys gain professional experience they may otherwise have to wait years to develop within their firms and corporations. For example, 90% of these cases involve direct interaction with the client. Taking on these pro bono cases empowers attorneys to practice client interviewing and counseling skills that are integral to success as a lawyer, but rare to practice in a law firm setting. For example taking on litigation like an order of protection case gets an attorney trial experience within one to four months, whereas the same attorney may wait years to lead the opening, closing, evidence presentation, direct examination and cross-examination in a case relying solely on opportunities provided by their firm. Likewise, attorneys have the opportunity to learn a new practice area. In sum, an attorney will shift our justice landscape for the better and become a stronger advocate in the process.

Impact in Practice

What types of cases reform our system with every pro bono client? The answer is often cases involving family law or criminal justice. However, pro-bono also includes markers of progress like opening a business and bringing opportunities of, by, and for local communities.

For example, on the family law side, preparing qualified domestic relations orders to go along with a pension in divorce case can be the difference that ensures stability and safety in someone’s life. In the criminal justice context a simple, form-driven task for an attorney such as sealing a record or expungement eliminates a huge barrier for clients and unlocks housing, job, and educational opportunities. In the economic justice field, a simple review of a real estate lease to prevent discriminatory practices or assistance forming an entity can be the difference that makes more local jobs and drives community reinvestment. Picciola emphasizes that these pro bono cases markedly “help stop the cycle of systemic poverty.” We at Paladin couldn’t agree more.

Paladin LSO Partner Spotlight: Melissa O. Picciola from Legal Aid Chicago was originally published in Paladin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.