My primary practice is family law and has been for my entire career. I found family law interesting while I was in law school, interned during school for a family practice, worked for a divorce attorney after I graduated and focused on the area at CVLS. Many lawyers don’t like family law because it’s emotional and messy, but I think you can really help a client emotionally as well as legally.
How has your practice evolved in the last few years?
Over the years, I began to change the focus of my practice from general divorce to custody and visitation to serving as a guardian ad litem in minor guardianship cases. Custody, visitation and support were always primary, even when I handled divorces. So many of my clients had minimal property issues, but fought over their children. It was pretty easy to go from there to representing children and trying to protect their best interests in custody and visitation fights. I really prefer that.
However, now my job allows me very little time for handling cases or going to court. These days, I spend my time executive directing CVLS’ 27 full time employees, nearly 3,000 volunteers and budget of $2.5 million.
If you could offer one piece of advice for young lawyers, what would it be?
Pro bono of course—because it brings so much to your career and, often, your life. Young attorneys can gain experience, learn new areas of law or even “try out” something different from their day-to-day job. They can represent a client from the initial interview through to the end of a case. They can draft legal documents, negotiate, argue, conduct settlement talks and win, lose or draw. They see the impact the law has on people and, especially, how having an attorney can empower someone. Many young attorneys feel better about their profession and themselves when they’ve finished a pro bono case or two.
What is the one technological device you could not function without daily?
My iPad. I love it and carry it with me everywhere. I want to stay connected, for good or bad, I check my email all the time and feel nervous if I can’t. I love to read and do nearly all of my reading now on the iPad. I can read the newspaper, check headlines or the weather, read my book or, if I need a break, do a little shopping. It’s the best toy ever. Oh, and, if necessary, I can do work on it too.
How has civility made a difference in your practice of law?
I love arguing the law but I hate fighting, especially with other lawyers. It’s such a waste of time and it hurts the case for all parties. I have had great hearings and trials with attorneys I admire and respect and like—we were arguing our hearts out in court, but on the law and issues. I have also, however, had miserable cases with miserable attorneys who were nasty or combative for no reason. As a rule, they are not good attorneys and they rarely help their clients . . . in fact, when an attorney comes into a case yelling and screaming or being insulting, I am pretty sure that my client will, ultimately, win the case.
This is particularly frustrating when I represent children. I have had cases where an attorney’s combative or uncivil demeanor and tactics prevent me from discerning his or her client’s behavior or motives. I have found myself wishing I could get to know the client without the attorney to really find out what’s going on. Of course, I can’t, and the bad attorney’s client is the one who suffers.
What do you do for fun?
You may have noticed when I mentioned my iPad that I really like reading. Boring, I know, but I pretty much am happiest when I have my nose in a book, virtual or otherwise. I also like to shop and I love to walk around and explore urban neighborhoods with my husband and daughters–
don’t stick me out in the woods. I like cities and shopping and hanging out with my family . . . when I am not reading.
Meg Benson has been the Executive Director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services since 2003. She is responsible for program management, coordination of bench, bar and law firm relations and publishing a bi-monthly pro bono column for the Chicago Lawyer. Mrs. Benson’s day-to-day work includes handling a caseload of complicated ad litem cases and training and supervising GAL volunteers. Ms. Benson remains active in multiple organizations across Illinois.