Civility

Lawyer Spotlight: Sarah Megan of Prairie State Legal Services, Inc.

sarah meganOur Lawyer Spotlight series highlights Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives. These attorneys are teaching us how to adapt and thrive in the changing legal environment.

Sarah Megan is the Director of Litigation for Prairie State Legal Services, Inc., where she represents clients in complex litigation in state and federal court and assists Prarie State’s 90-plus lawyers and paralegals with litigation and special projects covering a wide range of legal issues.

In 2016, Sarah received the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s Reginald Heber Smith Award for her dedicated service and outstanding achievements as a defense attorney.

How do you use technology in your legal aid work?

I have been a legal aid lawyer for 38 years and am continually amazed at the changes wrought by technology. There is so much more critical information available at our fingertips that would have taken weeks or months to obtain in the 1980s-90s.

Technology has made working remotely during the pandemic doable. Prairie State Legal Services has 10 offices serving 36 counties in northern and central Illinois. Our staff shares one client database and a common document drive and participates in regular meetings and court proceedings by videoconference. This technology has made the practice much more convenient for our lawyers.

Reliance on technology, however, has deepened the gap between litigants who have adequate resources and those who do not. A good internet connection is crucial and many of our clients just don’t have it. I have not done an evidentiary hearing by videoconference, but I know that our staff finds them challenging because a significant number of our clients and/or necessary witnesses do not have access to the internet at all.

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

When working remotely, it’s especially hard to draw the line between work and non-work time. Technology makes us accessible all the time. My job is to assist our attorneys with their cases, so I need to be very available to them. But I also need undisturbed time to research, analyze issues, and write briefs and motions. I try to limit reading and responding to emails to three or four 15-minute segments of the day to reduce stress and give me the undisturbed time I need.

My general remedy to deal with stress is nature. I’m lucky to live in an area with beautiful walks and forest preserves. I try to take a walk most days to clear my head, switch gears, and just see what is growing as the seasons progress. If I don’t take these walks, I feel noticeably more anxious and tense.

How do you remain civil in tense situations?

In a tense moment, I need to just pause and take several deep breaths. Many years ago, our Litigation Director Bernie Shapiro told us new lawyers to “have a purpose for everything you do.” It’s a simple maxim but has had an enduring impact on me.

In my own experience, I have found that communicating with another person in an overly aggressive, less than civil manner, doesn’t serve a useful purpose and it demeans the practice of law. Stopping to think before responding — whether in person, by email, phone, or letter — can help get me back on track to what I want to accomplish.

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

Furthering diversity is such an important undertaking and mission for all lawyers. The reality and the perception of equal access to justice depend on such diversity.

Without a doubt, individual experience and background impact how we interpret laws and regulations and evaluate others’ actions. Diversity in the bar, the judiciary, and administrative tribunals is critical to afford all persons fundamental fairness and the rights and protections the law affords them.

There are concrete measures we can take to try to advance diversity and equity. When hiring, we can explicitly and prominently highlight in job announcements and throughout our recruitment efforts a commitment to equity and inclusion, conveying a welcoming message to encourage people of color and other underrepresented groups to apply. In interviews, we can challenge ourselves to question subjective judgments about a candidate who “does not seem a good fit” asking whether bias, implicit or otherwise, is a factor in our reactions.

At Prairie State, we want to expand the diversity of our staff in hiring and retention efforts. We are posting our job opportunities on diverse websites, including specialty bars, several of which are listed on the ISBA’s website at https://www.isba.org/leadership/affiliatedbars.

We are also working on recognizing and addressing implicit bias, as well as various practices that impact the hiring and retention of a diverse staff. Recently, the Illinois Lawyers Trust Fund convened a Diversity and Inclusion Working Group and sponsored a survey of legal aid programs to track data on the diversity of their staff. The objective is to identify and promote additional practices to increase diversity. We look forward to the Working Group’s suggestions.

Ultimately, we need more diversity in law schools to improve diversity in the legal profession. Efforts to interest and mentor diverse high school and college students may be particularly beneficial.

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

Public confidence in the rule of law does seem to be at a low point. We have an ideal that the law treats every person equally, and that wealth, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation do not affect the outcome of legal proceedings. People know that reality doesn’t measure up to the ideal.

I became a lawyer to help people in need. Progress toward that singular goal is only possible with faith in the rule of law. Many times over the years, the law has improved and sometimes has even saved my clients’ lives.

Increasing diversity, expanding access to courts, and addressing the technology gap mentioned above, are critical to underscoring for the public that they can have confidence that courts are available to solve their serious legal problems.

When we all contribute to making the court system work for everyday people, confidence in the rule of law grows. All lawyers, judges, and other decision-makers can play a key role in demonstrating fairness, professionalism, respect, and civility while avoiding conduct that breeds contempt and cynicism for the rule of law. That saying “Do the right thing!” remains a good watchword for all of us.

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

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