The good fight

LAF’s John Gallo explains why he left Big Law for legal aid in the age of Trump

LAF’s John Gallo explains why he left Big Law for legal aid in the age of Trump - Photo by Rena Naltsas
October 2017
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

By all rights, John Gallo should be retiring and taking it easy following a nearly three-decade, accomplished legal career. Instead, he chose to start a new phase of his career, stepping into a position that reflects a lifetime dedication to service.

Starting at the beginning of this month, Gallo became the executive director of LAF, a nonprofit legal assistance program that provides a range of free legal services to Cook County residents who can’t afford traditional legal representation. He left Sidley Austin after more than two decades to take the position, where he will oversee attorneys and staff of the organization, formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1986, Gallo started a career with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and to an adjunct professorship at University of Notre Dame. He has dedicated time away from his work to help people in various degrees of need: He was a member of Leadership Greater Chicago, a civic leadership development organization, and also served on the board of directors of Horizons for Youth, which enables children from impoverished Chicago neighborhoods to enroll in and graduate from college.

Perhaps Gallo’s premier accomplishment at Sidley Austin was spearheading the Capital Litigation Project in 2005. The long-term project provides legal assistance to inmates incarcerated on Alabama’s death row. Through this program, more than 100 lawyers and staff from across Sidley’s nationwide offices have volunteered more than 110,000 hours to inmates’ cases.

“The program reveals that if you overcome the primary barriers to entry for lawyers to do pro bono work in capital cases — namely the concerns regarding lack of expertise and consumption of time — there is a deep-seated desire to do this kind of important work,” Gallo said. “I am proud to say that, of the close to two dozen Alabama clients on death row that we have represented since 2005, not one has been executed by the state of Alabama.”

CL: Why have you committed so much of your career to civic service?

Gallo: I’m a practicing Roman Catholic, and my practice is not what I would characterize as a dogmatic approach but a spiritual one. Some of the core beliefs I have derive from the gospel and church teachings, which include an obligation to provide support to the poor and vulnerable. That’s an obligation that we all have, but also because of my experience, when I do work of that kind, I’ve found that you get more than you give in terms of satisfaction and happiness. The basic idea for me is that it’s double the benefit: You do stuff that is important and you fulfill an obligation, and in so doing, you become a happier person.

CL: Have you passed your mindset on to your family?

Gallo: I’ve been married for 32 years and together for 39 with my college sweetheart, Jeanne. Together we have four kids. When they were all in high school, we all went on a service project rehabbing trailer homes in the Appalachian mountains. We did that for a week and it was a very powerful experience that touched all of us.

CL: What are the biggest challenges you anticipate from the Trump administration?

Gallo: The change in administration from Obama to Trump was an important factor in my decision to take this position. Unquestionably, civil legal aid is under assault by the Trump administration, so there are going to be political and financial challenges we will face, including the possibility of being defunded.

Both of Trump’s budgets that he sent to Congress proposed defunding the legal services sector entirely, which comprises close to 50 percent of the budget for LAF. So, on our $15 million budget, losing close to half of our budget would be devastating. That’s the primary short-term issue and it could be a devastating one.

The congressional threat to defund civil legal aid has been a real threat for 20-plus years. While it’s never happened entirely, there has been shrinkage and federal funding for legal aid over the years, so the threat is real.

Whether it’s the draconian outcome of complete defunding or partial defunding, or even if it remains flat in face of inflation, any of those outcomes will pose challenges, especially when the staff at LAF hasn’t had a salary increase in three years. They’re the ones that have borne the brunt of the fiscal timing around civil legal aid.

CL: What do you intend to do first when you step into the new role?

Gallo: I’m focused on essentially doing a learning and listening tour that includes talking to the folks at the agency, donors, alumni of LAF and connecting with the legal community in general about civil legal aid and learning a lot more about it. But I won’t prejudge what the priorities will be until that process is over. That said, I anticipate that I will be focusing on increasing the strategic approach to representing the poor and vulnerable and maximizing the collateral impact.

CL: How do you feel about making this transition after years of practicing law?

Gallo: I spent 21 years at Sidley, starting there in August 1996. I’m very excited about starting a new chapter in my life and I have no regrets about the years I had at Sidley. I knew it was time for a change and I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I’m glad it was with LAF.