Lawyer Spotlight: Emma Dorantes, Legal Advocacy Service

Emma Dorentas head shotOur Lawyer Spotlight series highlights Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives.

Emma Dorantes is a Champaign, Ill.-based staff attorney at Legal Advocacy Service, a division of the Illinois Guardianship & Advocacy Commission.

At LAS, Emma focuses on disability rights law and advocates for the rights of individuals with mental illness in involuntary treatment and involuntary civil commitment hearings.

How do you use technology in your practice?

Without being able to share and receive digital pleadings and other documents, I wouldn’t be able to cover the three counties in my work: Champaign, McLean, and LaSalle.

I use a mixture of secure email and the online e-filing system to receive and file court pleadings, secure e-fax to send information requests and receive medical records, and, since last spring, have been able to conduct many court proceedings either through court-reporter assisted phone conference or Zoom videoconferencing.

The flexibility offered by conducting brief status calls by phone or video conference has been a great time-saver. Even throughout the pandemic, I still primarily met with my clients, individuals in mental health crisis and in hospital psychiatric wards. However, due to hospital safety protocols, I had no choice but to talk to some clients by phone or Zoom, as available, and that presented its own set of technical difficulties.

As for trials, when it comes to troubled clients, ensuring attorney-client privilege and the exchange of information during hearings became nearly impossible if I was in one place and my client was in another, and technical issues have made it hard for clients in outpatient proceedings to participate from their homes.

Overall, though, I believe the changes we adopted during this pandemic have shown that technology can be extremely helpful, both in facilitating client relations and when the Court is willing to be open to non-traditional formats.

How do you manage your well-being?

Like most people, the pandemic for me has been emotionally and mentally destabilizing.

I love to volunteer and travel, and regularly play hostess to friends, but all of that has been paused since last spring.

Since then, I discovered gardening as a healthy hobby, and completed the local University of Illinois Extension’s Master Gardener training, which gave me an avenue for volunteering and safe, outdoor socializing.

Workwise, since going remote last March, I have moved my “home office” to just about every flat surface in the house, and finally settled on using the room with the most windows, since the sunlight genuinely helps with morale and motivation.

I’ve also found that, while social media has helped us all stay connected, taking a few hours a day off of all platforms is crucial.

How do you remain civil in tense situations?

With my clients, who are often not in complete control of their actions and behavior, I draw on all the patience I can muster, reminding myself that for most of them this is the lowest point they’ve been in of their lives, and remind them that I am appointed to serve them, that I can only help if they let me, and if they don’t want my help, I have to respect that.

With opposing counsel, I remember that we are both passionate about our positions, but that this case is one of many, and, so long as they are following procedure and we are all sharing information fairly, we are just professionals trying our best.

Due to their positions, judges will always be held in the highest regard, but when I feel they misinterpreted the law, I try to sleep on it before deciding whether the issue warrants a Motion to Reconsider or other legal remedies.

I am before the same judges for all my cases. I cannot afford to act rashly.

How can attorneys advance diversity and inclusion in the legal profession?

I have been very fortunate in that I lucked out with low/entry-level opportunities to rub elbows with practitioners. I worked with a legal services agency and as a summer clerk at a minority-owned law firm while still a college student.

By offering opportunities like these, as well as mentoring students from all backgrounds (and not just at the law school level), we as a profession can work toward advancing diversity and inclusion.

It would be invaluable for the judiciary to make similar strides, since our profession may be moving toward diversity and inclusion, but it still seems like the judiciary remains an oligarchy built on political pull, closed-door favoritism, and exclusion.

How can attorneys further public confidence in the rule of law?

Legal ethics has grown quite murky over the last few years. Attorneys need to try to keep personal politics out of it and focus on the rule of law. And when they don’t, and instead allow themselves to be corruptible, we have an obligation to discipline accordingly. I think that’s the only way we can move forward and regain the trust of the public.

What has your practice taught you about mental health and well being?

We really need to remind ourselves to slow down once in a while, for everyone’s sake, not just our own.

When we are focused on work, and feeling the pressures of accountability to a team or our own lifestyle’s demands, we are prone to overstretching ourselves.

This can not only harm the quality of our work product, but it will definitely take a toll on our minds and bodies.

Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Emma Dorantes here.

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