Lawyer Spotlight: Martin Cozzola, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services

photo of Martin CozzolaOur Lawyer Spotlight series highlights Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives.

Martin Cozzola is a staff attorney for Chicago Volunteer Legal Services‘ (CVLS) Early Resolution Program, IL-AFLAN Veterans’ Pro Bono Project, and Chancery Appointment Program. 

In these roles, he focuses on preserving affordable housing in a range of cases, including foreclosure defense, decedent’s estates, subsidized housing, and evictions (for both tenants and small “mom and pop” landlords).

How do you use technology in your practice?

Before the pandemic made the practice of law without technology all but impossible, CVLS’ use of technology was primarily limited to the essentials: legal research, drafting and filing pleadings, and maintaining client records in our case management software.

We have continued to use technology in all those contexts—and made the transition to Zoom court with the rest of the legal world—but I don’t think we could have navigated the last 15+ months without Microsoft Teams.

When there is not an ongoing global health crisis, CVLS is a very tight-knit and collaborative office with a robust open-door policy. Volunteers, law student interns, and other staff regularly pop in and out of each other’s workspaces to discuss courtroom procedure, legal arguments, and the best ways to achieve client goals.

It was hard to replicate that collaborative, open-door environment when we first went remote, but after a month or two, the projects I work on began using Teams to emulate our old office culture as best we could. With Teams, I’m able to exchange messages with my colleagues about small issues, provide quick feedback to interns, and have face-to-face meetings on the fly when necessary.

In addition, as part of Cook County’s new Early Resolution Program, CVLS is providing direct services over Zoom to self-represented litigants who are having difficulty navigating eviction court on their own.

What are the positive and negative consequences of technology?

For the most part, the technology we’re using by necessity has had a positive impact on my practice and CVLS as a whole.

The main downside is that the same low-income families that have had difficulty asserting their rights in the pre-pandemic court system now face a second barrier just to get their foot in the door: the technology gap.

Chicago’s legal aid community is resilient and has fought to create systems and programs to address this new barrier (including the aforementioned Early Resolution Program), but we know there are families falling through the cracks who may not be able to access our services until we’re back in our offices for good.

Hopefully, we can reach those clients soon. And it will be wonderful to see my coworkers in person once again. I miss them!

Being an attorney is stressful. How do you manage your well-being?

I don’t think I managed it particularly well during my first year as an attorney, but ever since then, I’ve done what I can to get out of my apartment and on a bike at least once a day—regardless of the weather or time of year.

When the world was operating normally, this was relatively easy because I had a 30-minute commute each way. In the morning, the ride would help me work through any anxiety I had about hearings coming up later that day, and in the evening, I’d get to burn off any residual stress from the day on the way home.

During the pandemic, there hasn’t been anywhere to commute to, so I’ve tried going for a 45–90 minute walk each day, just to give my brain time away from screens to process cases, etc.

I also did a three-day, 300-mile bike trip in Northern Michigan a few weeks ago, which really helped me clear my head of some of the rough patches I went through mentally over the last 15 months or so. Cycling and walking are not cure-alls, however!

Because so much of the work I do at CVLS involves housing, it’s hard not to feel like I’m the only thing standing between my clients and homelessness–that’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself.

Public interest attorneys (and other folks who do direct services for low-income families) sometimes refer to this idea as “emphatic distress” or “vicarious trauma,” and as a community we are getting better at helping one another through it.

And whether I’m on my bike or not, I’m working on it too!

How do you remain civil in tense situations?

My mom’s a psychologist and taught me from a very young age to breathe deep and speak evenly whenever I find myself in a difficult conversation. It mostly works.

Whether I’m dealing with an overzealous opposing counsel or a client who is taking their frustrations with the legal system out on me, I find that a deep breath and speaking slowly can de-escalate things to a point where it’s possible to actually solve problems.

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

I attended a CLE earlier this month put on by Northwestern’s and Loyola’s law schools called “Anti-Racist Supervision and Evaluation of Law Student Externs.” As someone who just started supervising interns and externs this year, it was an incredibly valuable CLE.

While it was particularly focused on how to ensure legal aid organizations supervise law student externs in an anti-racist and inclusive manner, I thought one of the more valuable insights was about we can ensure externship (and career) opportunities are advertised to historically underrepresented groups of attorneys when those positions are made available.

The speakers (Chipo Nyambuya, Director of Experiential Learning & Professional Development at Loyola and Cindy Wilson, Clinical Professor and Director of Bluhm Legal Clinic Center for Externships at Northwestern) emphasized that in the externship context, it can be incredibly valuable to send postings directly to the law school offices focused on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession, in addition to sending it to a school’s all-encompassing externship or placement office.

In the career context, that probably means working with smaller bar associations focused on uplifting and supporting historically underrepresented groups to ensure their members are aware that CVLS is hiring.

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

I’m sure there are innumerable macro-level changes lawyers can make to our profession to increase public confidence in the rule of law, but as someone in only my sixth year of practice, I approach this sort of thing on a smaller scale, client by client.

The guiding principle is tied to Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 and is something I’ve learned from my colleagues at CVLS: don’t overpromise or overcommit.

CVLS will not take on representation in cases where we don’t believe we have the capacity to help the client achieve their goals (or the capacity to support a volunteer who is representing a client through our organization).

If we don’t have the capacity, we do everything in our power to find another legal aid organization (or even a private attorney where appropriate) who can assist the client.

In addition, if clients have a goal that’s not achievable, we’ll have a frank conversation with them about what is possible and see if they still want our assistance. We’re very up front with potential clients about what we think we can accomplish, which I think helps the families we do represent gain a greater appreciation for— and understanding of—the law.

And I think that even the families we’re unable to assist usually leave our offices (or Zooms, as the case may be) thankful that, at the very least, someone was willing to listen to them and talk through their struggles in a respectful and thoughtful manner, which helps the profession as well.

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

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