I am currently the Director of Advocacy Training for Prairie State Legal Services, Inc., the civil legal aid program for 36 counties in northern and central Illinois outside of Cook County. In that capacity, I am involved in a wide variety of civil legal matters for low-income, elderly and disabled clients. My present caseload includes mortgage foreclosure defense and appeals of denials of unemployment insurance and SSI benefits. I also supervise attorneys handling family law matters for domestic violence victims, eviction defense, consumer law matters and other critical legal issues.
How has your practice evolved in the last few years; from your perspective, what’s in store for the next few years?
Every year that I have practiced law it has become clearer to me that “practice” is the most appropriate word for what we do. To put it another way, the more I learn, the more I recognize how little it is that I know. Coming to the realization several years ago that I was more than half way through my career as an attorney, but still was developing my skills and knowledge, was both stunning and invigorating. I became more determined than ever to continue to grow as a lawyer, and to do so in a deliberate way. My career has taken me from a year as a litigation associate at a large downtown Chicago law firm to work as a staff attorney in a rural, downstate legal aid office. From there, I moved to become the managing attorney of Prairie State Legal Services’ office in Waukegan, and then to my current position as Director of Advocacy Training for Prairie State. As training director, I work both to develop and train our newest attorneys, and to enable all of Prairie State’s attorneys to provide the highest quality representation to our clients. I also organize training for volunteer attorneys, to prepare them for pro bono work on behalf of low-income clients. In addition, I maintain a caseload of my own client matters, both because I enjoy working directly with clients and so that I keep my own skills sharp.
The six years in my current job in many ways have been the most significant period of growth for me as an attorney. Teaching skills and substantive law content to new lawyers has forced me to evaluate what makes a practitioner effective, and challenged me to practice what I preach. What lies ahead for me? There is so much room to grow! I look forward to continuing to learn from my colleagues, both novice and experienced.
If you could offer one piece of advice for young lawyers, what would it be?
It’s hard to choose just one piece of advice, but here are seven short points, most of which I learned from my mentor, Prairie State’s Director of Litigation Bernard Shapiro: Don’t look for the easy answer. There is no such thing as a dumb question. Don’t hide your mistakes – almost anything can be corrected to protect the client as long as you consult a supervisor or colleague quickly. A corollary to the point above: When things go wrong, don’t look for someone to blame, look for a way to resolve the situation for your client. Take the time to plan. Have a reason for everything you do. If you think you know it all, you’re wrong.
What is the one technological device you could not function without daily?
Not technically a device, but a platform: I rely on GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar, which allow me to work with people across the state without leaving my desk.
How has civility made a difference in your practice of law?
The experience which stands out in my mind when I think of civility occurred many years ago in a case for guardianship of a minor. This was a case in which I believed that opposing counsel failed to act civilly or professionally, resulting in great detriment to all of our clients. In retrospect, however, I see that I may also have become so entangled in the battle that I failed to see the forest for the trees in the case. Thus, the case has become for me a lesson in helping clients see the difference between becoming locked into a position and identifying what is in their own best interests and working towards that end. I represented a single working mother in a guardianship case brought by her teenager’s paternal aunt who wanted the girl to stay with her at the end of a summer visit. The girl apparently also wanted to live with her aunt. The litigation stretched on for several years, during which the girl remained with the aunt pursuant to a temporary agreed order entered before I had contact with the client. That order included no provision for visitation by my client. All three parties involved – mother, aunt and child – became entrenched in their positions, with the aunt and child demonizing my client, and my client furious with her former sister-in-law, and both hurt by and angry with her daughter as well.
The aunt was represented by a local attorney, and the court appointed an attorney for the child. Both of these attorneys became committed to the idea that the girl should have no contact with her mother, despite the fact that there was no evidence that the mother was abusive. At the same time, my client became committed to the position that the only resolution was for the child to return home. My client was in poor health and, in the end, died without any reconciliation with her daughter.
I vividly recall that after my client’s death, one of the other attorneys said to me, with apparent approval, that the child had never seen her mother again – other than in court – after that initial summer visit with the aunt. It struck me that this attorney was so entrenched in the battle that he failed to appreciate that the girl was likely to suffer a lifetime of pain from the knowledge that she had never reconciled with her mother. This experience taught me that litigation often is not the best way to solve a dispute, particularly in a family situation. It also has taught me that to support a client in staking out a position, without talking to the client about his or her ultimate needs and interests, is poor lawyering. Although my colleague at Prairie State and I had tried to convince our client to reach out to her daughter and possibly negotiate a temporary visitation arrangement, time has given me perspective, and I often have wondered whether we tried hard enough to help our client consider the best course. If I had it to do over again, I hope that I would have been more effective in helping my client reach some kind of reconciliation with her child while she had the chance.
What do you do for fun?
Hiking, biking, canoeing and cross-country skiing are my favorite activities. I have backpacked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon twice, and more importantly have hiked back out; I am planning a third trip in 2014. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in summer and the Sylvania Wilderness in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in winter are two of my favorite spots.
Linda Rothnagel is the Director of Advocacy Training for Prairie State Legal Services. She has served in that role since January 2008. Prior to assuming her current position, Ms. Rothnagel supervised the Waukegan branch office of Prairie State for 22 years and the Ottawa office for 2 years. Ms. Rothnagel is a graduate of Middlebury College (summa cum laude) and the University of Michigan Law School (cum laude).