Lawyers seek to plug gap for those in need

Oak Park's Pro Bono Network offers free legal aid in civil cases

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Attorney Heena Musabji estimates that close to 700,000 people in Cook County need legal aid in civil cases. Unfortunately, there are only about 300 paid staff attorneys currently offering their services to those people in need. 

"That's just in Cook County, so imagine how much higher that number would be if we expanded [the estimate] to surrounding counties in Chicagoland," she said.

Musabji is interim co-executive director of the Pro Bono Network, an Oak Park-based nonprofit organization that was started in 2011 to address the growing demand, particularly among the county's increasing number of low-income people, for legal assistance in civil cases. 

"The irony is that there are many attorneys in Chicago and its suburbs who want to provide pro bono legal services, but who lack a workable model to do so," according to the organization's website. "This is especially true of attorneys who have decided to take time off to raise children."

Pro Bono grew from a 2011 kitchen table conversation among 10 working mothers who also happened to be lawyers. They wanted a way to give back that meshed with their busy work and professional lives. 

Since then, the group has grown to roughly 250 attorneys — not all of them women — who have volunteered more than 12,000 hours helping more than 1,200 clients. They've offered their skills on tasks ranging from pre-court counseling for low-income debtors to securing guardianships for incarcerated mothers to helping undocumented people apply for legal residency.

One of the secrets to Pro Bono's success, Musabji said, is to avoid reinventing the wheel — and making the already byzantine world of pro bono legal services even more complicated. 

"Rather than provide direct legal services, we partner with existing legal aid agencies all over Chicagoland and help them with their projects," she said.

But the clients aren't the only ones benefiting from Pro Bono, Musabji added. Musabji said that many Pro Bono attorneys include stay-at-home parents taking a break from traditional practice to raise children. 

Rather than completely severing their career ties, Pro Bono allows them an opportunity to continue to hone their skills in a timeframe that accommodates their lifestyle. 

"We have a lot of attorneys who have left work to raise kids, started working with Pro Bono and went back to the legal profession where they wouldn't have done so without Pro Bono," Musabji said.

The organization also partners all of its volunteer attorneys with peer attorneys who may be able to pick up the slack in the event of emergencies or any other life circumstances.  

"Some of my closest friends have come out of this network," Musabji said, before emphasizing how important it is to be affiliated with "people who understand what you're going through."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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