Celebrate pro bono week

Illinois attorneys gave 1.86 million pro bono hours last year

Pro Bono

Meg Benson

Meg Benson has worked for Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, the oldest pro bono organization in the country, for more than 30 years. As executive director, she coordinates the agency's bench, bar and law firm relations and directs its program management and funding. A family law litigator, she still handles minor guardianship and custody cases.

October 2017

Pro bono week is later this month — Oct. 23 to 27. Before you get all grumbly and rumbly about “fake holidays,” consider why we have this annual revelry.

Pro bono week is a time when attorneys can celebrate the pro bono that they and their colleagues do. That’s not a fake holiday. Pro bono is real. In fact, it is a significant contribution to our profession’s drive toward equal access to justice. There are more than 1.4 million residents in Cook County who are eligible for free legal services, but only about 300 full-time legal aid attorneys.

It is ridiculous to think that this stalwart but tiny group of legal warriors can come anywhere close to meeting the massive need that exists. That’s where you — the private bar — comes in. According to the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission’s 2016 annual report, nearly 32,000 attorneys around the state contributed 1,855,763 hours of pro bono work. Your collective volunteer efforts put a significant dent in that equal access to justice goal that you keep hearing about. Be proud.

Pro bono week is also a time to highlight successful attorneys who do pro bono. Donating legal services is not just for rookies and the underemployed. On the contrary, successful lawyers, including partners, general counsels and judges have great pro bono track records. Pro bono doesn’t derail a career, it enhances and strengthens it.

This is also the time for local attorneys to get a little something for nothing. The Chicago Bar Foundation offers attorneys the opportunity to expand their legal knowledge with free Continuing Legal Education while also learning about the myriad pro bono opportunities in the Chicago area. Find out what’s available by topic, client, size of commitment, day, evening, weekends, etc. Chicago has such a rich assortment of pro bono work that there is literally no excuse for not doing something.

There are two additional points to know about pro bono week. The first is that Chicago originated this nationwide festival. Yes, Pro Bono Week, in all its glory, began in Chicago in 2005 when The Chicago Bar Association and The Chicago Bar Foundation launched it to honor and spread the word about attorneys who are improving people’s lives.

Within a few short years, the ABA discovered the value of dedicating a week to celebrate pro bono and began to spread it all over the country. Feel free to be smug when you hear about these other pro bono week events. They are pale imitations of Chicago’s robust revelries.

Finally, know that there is always people out there who need your help. For instance — those in the armed services and veterans. According to a recent survey, legal aid is one of the largest areas of unmet need facing Illinois veterans and active duty military. Many need help for consumer, housing and family law problems. These are issues and cases that most attorneys practice. Consider how easy it is to fit a pro bono case into your day for someone who spent several years risking his or her life for you.

What if you don’t know anything about consumer, housing or family law and have no interest in learning it? That’s fine too. There are so many ways to share your skills and time and Pro Bono Week is the perfect time to learn more about it.

So, later this month, open a bottle of bubbly, don your party hat and boogie around your office while singing the old disco song, “Celebration.” Pro Bono Week only comes once a year. Don’t let it pass you by.