During this season of giving, we had the opportunity to connect with Illinois legal leaders who were recently recognized by the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) for their pro bono work and contributions to access to justice. These pro bono award winners were honored during the annual National Pro Bono Week celebration, which highlights inspiring work in pro bono and volunteerism.
In the Q&A below, we spoke with the following legal leaders to learn more about why they do pro bono work, how they balance it with workplace demands, and some memorable pro bono experiences throughout their careers.
- Ellyn Bullock, owner of Bullock Law, LLC, in Champaign, who was awarded the Community Legal Services Award in the Sixth Judicial District for her work in child welfare and prisoner civil rights cases;
- Donna Davis, Associate General Counsel for the University of Illinois Foundation, who was awarded the Community Legal Services Award in the Sixth Judicial District for her volunteer legal work in the community;
- Brianna Pearson, JusticeCorps Fellow at the Illinois Bar Foundation, who was awarded the Judge Barbara Crowder Pro Bono Champion Award in the Third Judicial District for her work assisting courthouse patrons; and
- Angel Wawrzynek, partner at Armstrong, Grove & Wawrzynek LLC, in Matoon, who was awarded the Pro Bono Service Award in the Fifth Judicial District for her work with PILI, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, and the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network.
Why do you do pro bono work?
Bullock: I do pro bono work because I know my work as a lawyer is valuable. My area of law and my experience is in child welfare, mainly adoption and guardianship. These skills are very valuable for pro bono clients, and I enjoy giving them the skills and expertise necessary to take care of the children they love.
Davis: The longer I do it the more I realize that volunteering isn’t just about “doing good” or fulfilling a sense of obligation, it’s about tapping into some fundamental aspects of my humanity and purpose that brought me to the practice of law—the capacity for empathy, kindness, and generosity—and expressing those in a way that utilizes my skills and resources as an attorney to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those struggling to access legal resources.
Pearson: I kind of fell into my current position with Illinois JusticeCorps. I’m glad I did because it is very rewarding to help people understand the legal process. I feel that I have found my calling.
Wawrzynek: As JFK said in his inaugural address: “[M]an holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. … And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
How do you find time to fit pro bono work in?
Bullock: It is not easy to find time to do pro bono work on top of my regular paid work as an attorney. I basically accept good pro bono cases, and then just make the time and make it fit into my workload.
This results in some long days but also some economies of scale as I am able to double-up hearings and local courtrooms. I am also able to put my pro bono cases back-to-back with my regular cases for final hearing.
Davis: I was thrilled to partner with PILI [the Public Interest Law Initiative] in the last year to pilot and now implement a fully remote litigant self-help desk system. This not only increased my ability to meet with clients over lunch-hour time slots but also seems to have increased the volume of clients we can serve due to the flexibility of participating remotely.
I encourage all attorneys to explore the many ways they can volunteer pro bono services electronically in “bite-sized” amounts of time.
Wawrzynek: For direct service pro bono representation, so long as you only have one or two cases at any particular moment, the time spent on those cases is relatively unnoticeable in the daily shuffle of client files.
What is a memorable pro bono experience you can share?
Bullock: Recently, a hard-working grandmother filed a pro se petition for guardianship of her three-month-old grandson. The mother of the child was the guardian/grandmother’s 13-year-old daughter.
I was able to explain to the grandmother why she should include her daughter in the hearing and bring her daughter to the courthouse in order to allow a voluntary guardianship, instead of forcing a contested guardianship against her daughter.
As guardian ad litem I was able to do this while sitting in her small apartment, bouncing the adorable, bright, and healthy child on my lap. This child will be loved and cared for by two generations of maternal love.
Davis: I am writing this minutes after closing a PILI self-help desk client session where I could not only assist a mother seeking to modify a parenting plan and consider a contempt proceeding but I could also connect her with several local non-profit organizations she had not known about that might meet some of the needs she mentioned.
We lawyers often know of a lot of good work being done by good people. Connecting individuals to one another, and certainly in times of distress, is something I am grateful to do.
Pearson: One patron, who I had assisted multiple times, had been fighting for custody of his child. After his last court date, he made a special trip to thank me for all the help—and he was granted full custody.
Wawrzynek: Last year I was referred to a pro bono client who needed a will. In a meeting with the client, it turned out that she had not seen her disabled adult son in several years.
So, in addition to preparing her will, I was able to facilitate communications with the Office of State Guardian to remedy that situation and allow her to see her son.
All told a couple of “extra” hours spent in phone calls and emails on my part resulted in a life-changing benefit to her.
Pro bono work is…
Bullock: A tool for learning and growing as a lawyer.
Davis: Lively and soul-satisfying.
Pearson: Super gratifying and fulfilling.
Wawrzynek: Important, necessary, and good for the soul.
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