Lawyer Spotlight: Susan L. Zielke, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid

Susan L. ZielkeOur 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.

Susan L. Zielke is a Managing Attorney in the Eastern Regional Office of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid. In her practice, Susan focuses on legal aid work, primarily criminal records and public benefits, in addition to housing/homeownership, domestic violence/family, and consumer debt.

How is Land of Lincoln Legal Aid adapting to the changing work environment?

Because we are a program spread over 65 counties with five regional offices and a hotline, we have worked with technology for many years to stay connected. We use Office 365 and a web-based case management system, Legal Server, so that our documents and client information are accessible to us wherever we are. We recently added a VOIP system for our phones that connects all staff to one phone system.

Besides technology, we are strong believers in training our staff. We conduct orientations for all new staff and have new attorney training to expose our newest advocates to the broad range of our work. We have substantive or client-population focused task forces to keep our staff abreast of changes in the law and to brainstorm ways to tackle cases. Task force coordinators allow us to recognize program experts and give them opportunities to develop leadership skills.

Our managing attorneys meet monthly to talk through management and office practice questions and our management team (which also includes our administrative leaders) meets at least quarterly to think about the big picture and work through program-wide issues. Although we are a large program, our regional offices have a fair amount of autonomy, which enables advocates to respond to the legal issues that arise in their area quickly.

What challenges do legal aid attorneys face in navigating COVID-19?

We began working from home immediately and remain that way. We have begun to allow staff back in the offices in limited numbers, but we have to be aware of one another’s health and make sure to practice social distancing and mask-wearing.

At first, with the courts largely closed, it gave our staff time to focus on their cases and prepare for the courts’ reopening. Orders of protection continued to be heard, so our staff who handle these cases continued to work with new clients and attend court hearings while wearing masks, all while working from home.

Our cloud-based technology – including our phone system – made this transition fairly easy. But as time has gone on, the social isolation has proved difficult for some staff who are used to being in the office and working alongside their work family. Others have struggled with feeling inefficient with their limited knowledge of technology. But some have found themselves to be even more productive. So part of my focus has been to work with each person individually to address their technology needs, their desire/need to be in the office from time to time, and their mental health to the extent possible.

We have had weekly video regional office staff meetings during the work-from-home era, in order to stay in touch with one another. The management team has met weekly as well through our GoToMeeting platform to stay on top of the changing legal scene and our office needs.

We have also been planning for the future, as we consider the potential wave of evictions coming when the moratoriums are lifted, the potential increase in foreclosure filings, and the possible unemployment and other public benefits issues for those who have never needed to avail themselves of those programs.

How do you maintain civility in your practice during stressful situations?

Trying to put myself in another person’s shoes – to consider what they are going through or have gone through – is important for me to be understanding and empathic. Our workloads are high and the situations our clients face are stressful. I try to watch not only my own stress level, but also that of my staff. I can limit new cases if need be, and work with staff on projects to make the workload more bearable.

Personally, I also try to eat healthy, walk daily, and breathe deeply! I also see my chiropractor every three weeks to help stave off the migraine headaches I am prone to getting when my stress load is too high. Taking care of myself – and my staff – enables us to get along with one another, our clients, and the attorneys we work with as pro bono and opposing counsel.

What long-term impacts will COVID-19 have on the legal profession?

We have found that there is much we can do by video, at least internally. We have talked for years about setting up volunteer orientation in a more structured way, and COVID-19 forced us to do that this summer. We now have an entire week of orientation materials and videos that I have already shared with our fall volunteers. We also used this with new attorneys who joined us this summer.

We are also hopeful that the courts will realize that there are many status hearings that can be done by phone or video hearing, so that attorneys do not have to travel two-plus hours round trip for a five-minute hearing. We will continue to grow more dependent on technology to keep us connected to our work and our clients.

How are you maintaining your work-life balance during the pandemic?

From the beginning of our work-at-home procedures, we have needed one staff person in the office on a daily basis, and that has been me. This enables me to clearly focus on work when I am here for a few hours each day, and then break up the rest of my work during the time I am at home. I have also made sure my staff understands the best times to reach me – the mornings – and let them know if they need something urgently, a text is the best way to communicate.

I make spending focused time with my family a priority, so we go on walks in our neighborhood daily and talk through what is on our minds about the world, the state, the pandemic, racial inequities, and our community. We have greatly appreciated our months together, as my children are 18 and 20, so we know we will not have time like this again.

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

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