Lawyers are not always portrayed as particularly altruistic in movies and television, but Oak Park-based Pro Bono Network is defying that often misguided stereotype by connecting attorneys interested in volunteering their legal expertise with individuals who need assistance the most — and can afford the least.
Pro Bono Network (PBN) was founded in 2011 by a small group of local attorneys who were taking career breaks to be stay-at-home moms. Gathered around the kitchen table of Oak Park attorney Donna Peel, the women were interested in using their legal expertise to give back to their community but didn’t know how to go about doing it. PBN was launched to create an infrastructure to support attorneys who want to donate their services to help vulnerable clients, including low-income seniors, survivors of domestic violence, the disabled, veterans and children.
The need for pro bono attorneys is great. According to a 2022 report by the Legal Services Corporation, low-income Americans do not get legal assistance for 92% of their non-criminal legal problems, a statistic driven by growing income and racial disparities in our country.
“Pro Bono Network provides the training, malpractice insurance, project management and subject matter experts that allows us to leverage the untapped resources of volunteer attorneys. It’s really a win/win situation — for the attorneys as well as the clients,” said Linda Rio, PBN executive director.
Since 2011, PBN has worked with 20 partner agencies, including Legal Aid Chicago, Prairie State Legal Services, Sarah’s Inn, and Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, on cases involving domestic violence, divorce, immigration and the expungement of criminal records.
“We partner with overstretched legal aid agencies to identify service gaps and then we develop projects to help close those gaps in legal representation,” said Rio, a former attorney with the Chicago Bar Association and Foundation.
In 12 short years, PBN has swelled to 450 attorneys, providing more than 29,000 volunteer hours and serving more than 5,000 clients. Their work represents almost $7.5 million in free legal services. The organization’s volunteers now include retired attorneys and those working part-time as well as those, like the founders, who are on career breaks to raise families. There is no minimum commitment for the participating attorneys, so they can work around other responsibilities.
River Forest resident Marisa Green was drawn to PBN’s mission as well as its flexibility. She left DLA Piper, one of the largest law firms in the world, where she worked on commercial litigation and medical malpractice, when she had her second child.
“It became increasingly difficult to manage a busy trial schedule with family responsibilities. You can’t tell a client that you can’t make a court date because you’ve got to pick up a kid,” Green said.
She stayed home with her children for several years and was active in the PTOs at Roosevelt Middle School and Willard Elementary. Once her children were in high school, she was looking for ways to use her legal background to help others when she heard about PBN. She eventually became project manager for PBN’s Senior Legal Clinic.
The clinic, which partners with the Center for Disability & Elder Law (CDEL), provides assistance on a range of legal issues, including drafting advanced health-care directives, property powers of attorney, simple wills and other end-of-life documents.
Judy Smith recently took over from Green as project manager for the clinic. A former corporate attorney specializing in finance, security fraud, and mergers and acquisitions, Smith’s work with the clinic motivated her to get a master’s degree in gerontology from Concordia University.
“I witnessed my dad struggle as he got older and I saw firsthand the big disconnect between the resources that are available for seniors and their knowledge of them, especially in a crisis situation. It’s important to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves. The seniors are so deeply appreciative of our assistance,” Smith said.
Patti Marino has been involved with PBN since 2012. A retired teacher and lawyer, Marino has spent much of her life advocating for at-risk children and their mothers. She served for many years as a teacher at youth residential facilities operated by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). As an attorney, she also represented incarcerated mothers needing help maintaining contact with their children. She also has served as a hearing officer for the Illinois State Board of Education and a mediator for the nonprofit Center for Conflict Resolution.
“It’s a rare occasion when someone can make a living doing what they love. Helping kids has been my passion. And by helping their mothers, I felt that I was helping kids,” said Marino, a proud grandmother of eight.
One of Marino’s favorite projects is Lawyers in the Classroom, which brings attorneys into underserved schools to teach students about the U.S. Constitution, the American legal system and careers in law. Marino has been discussing with students at St. Catherine-St. Lucy (SCSL) School such issues as the First Amendment, hate speech, the Fourth Amendment, and search and seizure cases, as well as how jurists are selected for specific trials.
“The Pro Bono Network attorneys are very well prepared and enthusiastic and engaged with kids. The kids pick up on that and it makes them enthusiastic too. The lawyers see how bright our kids are and they challenge them,” said Mike Kennedy, a seventh-grade social studies and language arts teacher at SCSL.
“The first time I visited the class,” Marino said, “the kids all told me they wanted to be lawyers and make a lot of money because that’s what they saw on TV. I told them that the lawyers who make a lot of money work more than 80 hours a week. It’s important that they know the reality of the legal profession — the good and the bad — and that it’s very different from what they see on TV.”
PBN is primarily supported by individual donations. Its annual fundraiser will be held on June 1 at Katherine Legge Memorial Lodge in Hinsdale, with music provided by the Oak Park-based band, “The Island of Misfit Toys.” For more information, visit pro-bono-network.org.