Equal access to justice doesn’t come easy. This is especially true for those facing civil legal challenges for which there’s no constitutional right to legal representation. Fortunately, the Illinois legal community provides resources to help connect those in need with public interest aid or pro bono services across the state.
We recently spoke with Brent Page, Senior Managing Attorney at the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI), to better understand how PILI facilitates collaboration between organizations working to make the justice system more accessible in the Land of Lincoln.
Illinois has many legal aid service providers and supporters. What role does PILI have in assisting them?
At PILI, we see ourselves as a hub for pro bono and public interest law in the legal community across Illinois. Our mission is to engage, inspire and empower those advancing equal access to justice, and we do that in several different ways.
We have a Law Student Internship Program and a Graduate Fellowship program where law students and recent graduates provide tens of thousands of hours of support to legal aid providers across Illinois. Over the course of our 43-year history, over 4,000 PILI alums have gone through these programs, and we keep PILI alumni engaged in public interest and pro bono work through educational, networking, leadership and service programs.
Through our Pro Bono Program, we have several projects through which we work to increase the availability of pro bono legal help for those who cannot afford an attorney in Illinois. We believe the Illinois legal community should work together to provide these services, and that it’s PILI’s role to facilitate this collaboration.
What are some ways PILI promotes pro bono initiatives around Illinois?
Through PILI’s Pro Bono Program, we develop innovative pro bono opportunities, offer pro bono programming and resources, cultivate best practices, and celebrate the life-changing pro bono performed throughout the state.
PILI’s Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committees consist of members of the judiciary as well as pro bono leaders from local law firms, corporations, bar associations, and public interest law organizations, and strive to increase equal access to justice by promoting and enhancing pro bono legal services within a specific circuit.
PILI provides a variety of pro bono opportunities for lawyers, law students and legal professionals across the state of Illinois including limited scope and full representation activities. Through our Pro Bono Initiative, we facilitate the sharing of best practices as well as pro bono resources and programming through our Pro Bono Roundtables and Forum. Last year, PILI engaged over 250 pro bono volunteers to serve over 400 clients statewide as well as supported over 400 CLE attendees with the skills they need to serve people who need legal help.
How can legal organizations better train attorneys to deliver pro bono services?
Training attorneys to deliver pro bono services is a key part of a ensuring a volunteer is able to sufficiently advocate for their client. Having a searchable outline or manual that volunteers can reference is helpful, as well as including checklists and the most common questions and answers.
In my own pro bono work, I’ve also felt more comfortable taking a pro bono case knowing I was able to phone a mentor and ask a question. PILI recently designed a statewide Pro Bono Mentorship Program, where volunteer attorneys who lack experience in a particular area of law are paired with a more experienced attorney for advice and counsel to ensure competent representation of pro bono clients. This way, not only do we increase the number of clients who receive pro bono assistance but also offer a unique and invaluable learning opportunity for attorneys. For more information, visit www.pili.org/pro-bono-mentorship.
How have you seen tech impact PILI’s work? How do you see this impact evolving?
One recent technological feat is Illinois Free Legal Answers, which PILI began managing a few months ago. This is a virtual legal clinic where low-income Illinois residents can submit a question online via a secure website to ask a lawyer for help with a civil legal issue.
Whether on your lunch break or in your pajamas, [lawyers] can now provide brief advice and counsel someone through a legal problem. Overall, technology has made doing pro bono easier and more accessible for volunteers. Whether it’s watching a CLE on your laptop, searching Illinois Legal Aid Online before interviewing a client, or even answering a client’s question through an online portal, technology is a tool that helps us better serve our clients. I also hope future technology continues to lower barriers and help increase access to justice.
What other trends have you seen relative to pro bono?
One of the biggest recent trends related to pro bono is volunteers interested in short-term projects rather than larger commitments. With increased awareness around limited-scope representation, more and more attorneys are assisting clients with a segment of their case when having an attorney is most useful. Limited-scope opportunities should be crafted strategically to ensure that the time and effort invested by the agency, client and volunteer provides the most benefit.
Dozens of pro bono and legal aid programs are offering flexible opportunities, even including some that can be done remotely. PILI has had success with developing Legal Help Within Reach, where we recruit attorneys and law student volunteers from urban areas to volunteer at free one-day legal clinics for low-income Illinoisans living in rural and underserved communities. These clinics provide a bite-sized pro bono opportunity for volunteers and much needed and otherwise inaccessible legal assistance for individuals, families and communities in need.
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