By Christine Kraly
When Rose Rivera faced the decision of what law school to attend, she heard about the Chiapas Human Rights Practicum at DePaul University College of Law.
Inspired by her interest in international and immigration law, the program's focus on Mexico's indigenous peoples intrigued her.
"That was one of the reasons I went to DePaul," she said.
Leonard "Len" Cavise, director of DePaul's Center for Public Interest Law, created the Chiapas program — one among several initiatives the activist lawyer helped establish at the school.
Armed with a passion for serving the public, Cavise created a unique program that exposed law students to the complex plight of Mexico's poor for at least a decade. It continues to prove to be one of many successes from the school's backer of ideas and harbinger of criminal justice truth.
"I really think DePaul is a very unique place to go if you're interested in public interest law," Rivera said. "And that's pretty much all thanks to professor Cavise."
The birth of a rebel lawyer
The 65-year-old Cavise grew up in upstate New York. He loathes speaking about himself, something he said many times. Its effect creates intrigue, as if something interesting must exist within the answers. The effect proves accurate.
Cavise speaks Spanish, French and Italian and relies on all of them throughout his calling: teaching.
He comes from an Italian family who said they thought he might one day go into politics because, in part, he said, "I've always argued a lot."
He quickly disabused relatives of hopes for a Mayor Cavise and set his sights on law school instead. He taught high school French while attending Georgetown University Law Center and graduated in 1971.
He did not know what exactly to do with his law degree so he found himself doing what he used to do, and continues to do: He traveled.
He spent several months traveling through Europe and Africa and learned on the phone while in Casablanca that he passed the bar.
He worked with the National Lawyers Guild in New York in 1973 when he became involved with the guild's work on the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee.
At the time, in what became known as the Siege at Wounded Knee, American Indian Movement activists seized land at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Hundreds of people got arrested and charged with state and federal crimes, resulting in hundreds of criminal cases requiring legal assistance.
Cavise served as a kind of office manager and liaison, coordinating cases among the several guild lawyers on site with the home office. No two days seemed the same. He credits the time he spent as an experience to learn from several mentors and a time which shaped his future in the legal profession.
"It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life," he said.
He arrived in Illinois in 1974, where he worked for the Prison Legal Services Project at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac. He took up inmates' legal cases and began a paralegal program at the institution.
Cavise continued to work in legal aid and public defense until he began teaching criminal procedure at DePaul in 1983. When the opportunity arose to instruct the future ranks of the legal profession, Cavise asked himself: Would he rather deliver a wonderful lecture in a classroom, or a wonderful oral argument in a courtroom? His decision became clear.
"Any job I ever had, I was always incorporating some kind of teaching element into it," he said.
A self-proclaimed "Latin America guy," Cavise first traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, shortly after the poverty-stricken area's indigenous people fought for their land against an oppressive government in 1994. Cavise became shocked and fascinated by the contradiction of wealth and overwhelming poverty within the area.
Upon his return to Chicago, Cavise approached DePaul's law school administrators about establishing a program that takes students to annually tour the area. He expected resistance, but instead received support, financial and theoretical. The inaugural Chiapas Human Rights Practicum group visited the beleaguered area in 1999.
Before the students — typically 15 to 20 in their first or second year — embark on their 10-day trip, they learn about Chiapas and its people's history. A smaller group of students typically remain in the country through the summer, working with human rights lawyers.
For Rivera, "this wasn't just a trip."
On her 2007 tour of the country, Rivera and her classmates met with activists, rebels and local people.
Students visited the village of Acteal, the site where in 1997 at least 45 residents were massacred. Rivera recalled learning of the people's desperate survival skills. Young children received training at an early age on how to harangue visitors into buying jewelry or watches, she said. She said this shocked her to see entire towns bought by corporations.
"You sort of realize it's an alternative universe," said Rivera, who works as a legal aid immigration attorney in Elkhart County, Ind. "I don't think there are too many programs (like Chiapas), especially in law schools."
Cavise said regardless, the students — mostly, but not all, seeking public interest careers — take home lessons from the trip on justice and how to pursue it.
"You hope for it to instill change," he said. "Those transformative experiences, I hope they keep in their minds."
Establishing the program — as well as a slew of other initiatives — ultimately helped Cavise earn the Chicago Bar Foundation's 2006 "Leonard Jay Schrager Award of Excellence."
"In word and in deed, he really embodies what the award is all about," said the foundation's Executive Director Robert Glaves. "Throughout his career he has done excellent work both as an advocate and educator, consistently has been a leader in developing innovative access to justice initiatives and has inspired legions of students to take up the cause."
A lasting impression
Former students and colleagues paint Cavise as a kind of ideological venture capitalist: He never met a good idea in which he didn't invest his time and efforts.
To illustrate his paying-forward investments, one need look no further than the center where he works. Cavise told the story simply, as if establishing an interdisciplinary program at a private university were smooth and painless. But listen to his fans; they said working with Cavise on programs proves just that.
In 2004, he said, a couple of students approached him about wanting a certification in public interest. At the time, Cavise said, centers were just gaining popularity among law schools.
He agreed to take it to the school's "supportive" dean, with whom, Cavise said, held a conversation that went something like this: "Can we be a program? 'Yes.' Can we be a center? 'Yes.'"
Established in 2006, the center coordinates DePaul's many public interest law courses as well as the Pro Bono & Community Service Initiative.
"That program has both a direct impact on access to justice, through the great work students and faculty have done to help people in need and in the longer-term impact of cementing these ideals into a whole new generation of lawyers," Glaves said.
Cheryl Price, the initiative's director, called Cavise "a visionary" who assisted in creating the initiative, in which students who complete at least 50 hours of service through the program are eligible for a service award.
Cavise attended one of the first sessions of the initiative's new Neighborhood Legal Assistance Project, which helps homeless people obtain state identification cards. He surveyed the group and wondered aloud how it could attract more law students.
"That's so Len," Price said, always asking, "'How can we grow it? How can we make it better?'
"His basic message to the students is be the best person you can be, and that means helping others. He exudes that message."
One of Cavise's former students — and namesake of his annual student innovation honor — took that message to heart in trying to help her fellow students.
In 2005, her second year of law school, Teri Ross approached Cavise about establishing a loan assistance program for public interest students. A previous discussion occurred, but little action, about creating such a program, Ross said.
"I need you to be a voice to the administration,'" she implored Cavise.
Simply put, he responded, "'OK, I'll do it,'" Ross said.
The Loan Repayment Assistance Program started. In its first year, the loan program awarded assistance to one student, Ross said. By the time Ross became a 3L, she and Cavise expanded the program by establishing a student fee that helps pay for the awards.
"He really helps you bring the goal," said Ross, program director at Illinois Legal Aid Online. "There's no question he played a large or larger role than I did."
If there is pride to wield, Cavise boasted not of his own influence in helping create the programs, but rather of his students' determination to see them to fruition. To illustrate that point, at the party he hosts every year for law students and faculty, Cavise honored the graduating Ross by establishing a yearly honor in her name to honor the student who takes on a particular initiative.
Among the first recipients of the award were Jennifer Cassell and Susan DeCostanza, who both graduated from DePaul in 2008.
"He's one of those people who can make it happen," said Cassell, one of Cavise's former students.
DeCostanza never took one of Cavise's courses, but she and Cassell met with him over lunch as 1Ls. In part, they wanted to discuss Cavise's help in finding financial resources to fund their summer internship plans.
During the discussion, Cassell asked why DePaul, with its burgeoning reputation in public interest law, didn't have a social justice journal.
"He said, 'Well, I think that's a great question and why don't do you it?'" said DeCostanza, an attorney with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. "He does recognize good ideas and is just really good about helping develop them or launch them."
Cue his indefatigable ability — and genuine desire — to place students at the right table with the right administrator or decision-maker. Cavise and the students met with top law school officials, who supported the launch of the Journal for Social Justice.
Cavise opened his Rolodex of contacts for the students in search of article authors. "He's very well connected and having his name tied to the journal was key," DeCostanza said.
"He also stepped back and let us make the important decisions," said Cassell, who works in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' regional office in Chicago.
Beyond the lecture hall
Cavise can find himself in a kind of love-hate relationship with the law, and even law school.
"Law school doesn't teach you how to be a lawyer," he said. Though not neglecting the love half, Cavise chooses to be frank with students — often eager and starry-eyed about their chosen profession — about its pitfalls.
"You have to tell them that you have to put up with an awful lot of crap," he said, including cutting deals for clients in courtroom hallways. "You have to speak the truth without speaking so much truth, they decide to become carpenters."
Cavise pairs that "truth" with a nudge toward getting out the classroom and into experience, whether in a prison, a courtroom or a shelter.
For several years, Cavise himself volunteered his time as a site captain in the emergency homeless shelter at West Suburban Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) in Oak Park.
He oversaw a volunteer team and ensured the safety of shelter guests, including the enforcement of shelter rules, Executive Director Lynda Schueler said.
In typical Cavise fashion, he wondered aloud — possibly joking — whether Schueler would even remember him.
Of course, Schueler remembered her three-year board member fondly.
"Len was a great board member — supportive, direct, smart and (he) has a great sense of humor," she said.
Often, he would help some of the program's clients with criminal backgrounds navigate the justice system, Schueler said.
While serving on the board, Cavise and his students compiled PADS' policies and wrote the group's emergency shelter operations manual, which it still uses today, Schueler said.
"That was an undertaking that took several months, but well worth it," she said.
Out of the classroom, into the system
Sometime between international lecturing, Cavise planned to defend protesters that may be arrested while demonstrating during the NATO summit in Chicago. Last year, he defended a handful of protesters arrested during Occupy rallies in the city.
"There's a term that's come up, 'rebel lawyer,'" DeCostanza said. "I certainly think that he is always going to be an activist. It's in his blood."
Cavise also reveals flashes of his anti-establishment philosophy when he described serving as a commissioner on Illinois' Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission. Cavise said the commission — established two years ago to review legal claims of torture — has been hamstrung by various types of bureaucratic red tape.
He will have to squeeze the civic duty into a schedule crammed with international lecturing trips and, possibly, some downtime. His summer schedule has him teaching in Chiapas in May, Italy in June and Costa Rica in August — with the short layover at home to help represent arrested NATO demonstrators.
Besides passport stamps, Cavise likely will return with a fresh set of souvenirs for Shaye Loughlin, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law.
"My son has the most unbelievable T-shirt collection," Loughlin said, laughing.
In between his lectures on human rights laws, Cavise invariably picks up a knickknack from Guatemala or a T-shirt from Turkey for Loughlin's two children.
"That just speaks to who he is," she said.
Back at home, Cavise and his wife, Susan Kaplan, live in the West Loop and escape the city's hustle to a quieter home in Valparaiso, Ind. They have two sons, one who is a 2L at DePaul. Cavise called it a "singular thrill" to take him on the Chiapas trip. The couple's other son owns a small retail business in Bloomington, Ind.
Kaplan served for at least 25 years as the director of the Community Economic Development Law Project before retiring recently.
"I don't see it on the immediate horizon," Cavise said of his own retirement. "I feel the need to be productive."
And to Cavise, being productive means continuing to expose students to a world beyond their law books and helping them establish satisfying careers helping others.
"I just love that," he said.
"Then I feel my work is done here."