By Margaret Benson
Chicago Volunteer Legal Services
Pro bono is about clients and equal access to justice. At least that's what you learn during a standard pro bono pitch. But consider the value it brings to the legal profession overall. It makes lawyers look good, counteracting ugly stereotypes of attorneys as sharks and ambulance chasers.
Recognizing the luster pro bono offers our profession, The Chicago Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Foundation honor a handful of outstanding pro bono attorneys each year.
This year's singular "Edward J. Lewis II Pro Bono Service Award" was awarded to a trio of outstanding law firm partners.
John Grossbart and Stephen Libowsky of SNR Denton and Donna Welch of Kirkland & Ellis served as lead counsel on three class-action cases which, together, forced the state of Illinois to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Their pro bono work made it possible for people with disabilities to move out of nursing homes and institutions and live in their own homes with appropriate supports and services. Each attorney represented a distinct class of Illinois residents: People with developmental disabilities, people with mental illness and people with disabilities living in traditional nursing homes.
This trilogy of cases demanded an enormous commitment of time and resources. Grossbart got involved when he sought some interesting, challenging pro bono work from SNR Denton's pro bono coordinator.
The coordinator mentioned an opportunity that had recently come across his desk, but noted that it would require a heavy time commitment and significant firm resources.
Intrigued, Grossbart checked it out. Once he learned what the case involved, he found himself so drawn to the compelling issue that he convinced his colleagues to let him put together a litigation team. Ultimately, Grossbart and Libowsky committed their firm to one of its largest pro bono cases ever handled.
Similarly, Welch, whose Kirkland team contributed thousands of pro bono hours, made sure that her firm devoted sufficient resources for a successful case. Fighting off challenges to class certification, motions to intervene by opposition entities and 7th Circuit interlocutory appeals and navigating massive discovery including dozens of depositions, these three attorneys steered their cases to beneficial settlements.
While class-action litigation makes the news, pro bono is equally valuable on a micro scale. Volunteering at the Cook County Circuit Court's Expungement Help Desks since 2008, Steven Fus, assistant general counsel of United Airlines, has helped at least 350 people seeking to expunge or seal their criminal records.
While some of the people Fus sees are not eligible to clear their records, Fus counsels everyone, delivering even bad news with professionalism and grace. Recognizing that attorneys are uniquely qualified to provide pro bono legal services, Fus is working to convince his employer to expand and formalize a pro bono program nationwide.
Elizabeth Lewis is this year's winner of the "Maurice Weigle Exceptional Young Lawyer Award." An associate in a notoriously demanding legal environment in a notoriously demanding legal economy, Lewis incorporated pro bono work into her practice from Day One.
As a first-year associate at McDermott Will & Emery, she served as liaison and coordinator of a program that provides pro bono legal assistance to low-income children and their families in many substantive areas. Since then, she has gone on to handle a variety of tough cases, devoting at least 1,200 hours to representing at-risk children and families and nonprofit organizations that serve children.
A legal services attorney for 10 years, Cynthia Wilson, an associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law, introduces the newest generation of attorneys to public interest law and pro bono through a variety of compelling, practical courses. Her Pro Bono Theory and Practice class explores the ethical, moral and structural issues of pro bono work and provides students with the opportunity to work on pro bono projects and cases with law firm attorneys. Wilson is working to ensure that equal access to justice becomes a reality in our lifetimes by training and encouraging each new class of attorneys and by showing them the value that pro bono brings.
The named plaintiff in one of the class- action cases on behalf of people with disabilities wrote in support of Libowsky's award nomination: "Mere words can never fully describe the joy and freedom I feel to live in my own apartment and I feel knowing that hundreds of other people will now have the choice to move out of a nursing home. All people should be given the opportunity and the chance to live in their own homes with the helpful services they need. … (B)ecause of (Mr. Libowsky), people with disabilities will have more options. For that, he deserves this award."
As attorneys, we owe a debt of gratitude to these colleagues who go above and beyond by donating extraordinary pro bono time and effort working to keep our legal system fair and open to all.