By Melissa Ford
The hallmark of an exceptional idea is its ability to serve the needs of many. West Cook Pro Bono Network, the brainchild of local mom and attorney, Donna Peel, is one such remarkable vision. Known as The Network, attorneys are offered a unique opportunity to pool their professional talents, making a bigger impact in their communities for those who can’t afford legal services, while supporting their own personal needs outside their profession.
The Network’s slogan is powerful: “The few hours you give enable the group to give many!”
However, giving back to her community, at times, was frustrating for Peel, a stay-at-home mom. “One thing I definitely could not find was pro bono work. Due to time commitments and geographic locations of certain work, I would incur babysitting expenses and precious time away from my family. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t possibly be alone in this problem! How valuable is it that we have so many lawyers that want to give back, but can’t for a variety of reasons?’”
As it turns out, Peel wasn’t alone.
Other attorney moms were facing similar concerns, juggling schedules, weighing the costs of pro bono work, yet desiring to exercise their valuable legal skills. “That’s what inspired the model and need for attorneys to band together,” Peel explains. “And organizations seeking pro bono services were more amenable to changing hours and accommodating the needs of a group rather than one individual.” Funneling the collective legal skills, talents, and experiences of local attorneys back into their communities, struck a chord with others, as well, leading to this group’s emergence.
Last February, West Cook Pro Bono Network was inaugurated, offering two anchor projects: Lawyers in the Classroom, teaching Constitutional Law to seventh graders on Chicago’s South Side, and the Senior Center Initiative, supporting local low-income seniors by providing Power of Attorney for Health Care and Property as well as Living Will Declarations.
Today, The Network boasts 23 active attorneys and the numbers are climbing.
In awe of this overwhelmingly, positive response, Peel can hardly contain her enthusiasm. “It’s inspiring because I realize that it’s meeting the needs of so many people in our communities as well as the varied needs of our members. Retired lawyers, attorney-moms working part-time, women practicing full-time, stay-at-home dads looking for legal work, and attorney-moms staying at home to raise kids, yet wanting to remain active in their profession.” As one solo practitioner-mom (and a member of The Network) explains, “It provides me with a much needed outlet so I can scratch my philanthropic itch!”
And, philanthropic is an apt description for this bright, talented, and caring group of lawyers.
Recently, they added two more projects scheduled to kick off this fall: Violence Against Women Act Project, helping immigrant victims of domestic violence rebuild their lives in the U.S., and Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation, representing homeowners in pre-trial mediation. Even though The Network is “geared to caretakers in the Oak Park/River Forest area,” Peel welcomes attorneys “from any area or employment status” to participate in one or more projects. And, there is more! Projects include training, malpractice insurance is provided, and inactive status is allowed under Illinois Rules.
The demand is there, but keeping this group up and running provides some challenges.
“When I established The Network, I knew that the primary hurdle would be keeping it going because the target service-group, the stay-at-home mom, is a group in constant flux. It’s difficult to get involved in legal matters because someone might be looking for a job in a few months, or might be having another baby, or someone is supporting a family member with a sudden illness,” Peel emphatically adds, “And I want women lawyers to know that when they come off of a job or caring for kids or care-taking - that we exist and that what they can give is valuable!”
West Cook Pro Bono Network might just be the group you’ve been searching for.
Wishing that such a group existed when she first quit working full-time, Peel reflects on its importance in her life, “Doing pro bono work helps me remember how valuable legal talent is,” Peel shares, “and how I am still valuable beyond my role as parent.”
This might just be your chance to give a few hours to enable this group to give many. . .