A perfect community

Eleni Katsoulis leads Greek pro bono clinic to incredible growth

Photo by Rena Naltsas
Photo by Rena Naltsas
January 2020
By John McNally
Managing editor

It took only two weeks into law school for Eleni Katsoulis to realize she had to join the Hellenic Bar Association of Illinois. Joining the group brought her more than she could have ever imagined.

Of course, there were the helpful networking events allowing for a burgeoning lawyer to grow her career that has brought her to Northwestern Memorial HealthCare as a claims and litigation counsel. But, more importantly, it provided Katsoulis with a village of fellow Greek lawyers who have become lifelong friends and mentors. In a word, they are family.

And they all share a common purpose — to help people in the close-knit Greek community with legal services. So Katsoulis and her team banded together to open Hel.LAS, a pro bono clinic open on the second Saturday of each month at 6251 W. Touhy Ave. in the Edgebrook neighborhood.

Hel.LAS — which always has interpreters onsite — has grown over the last three years at a rapid pace and now has 75 volunteers who have helped 200 Greek families. Before the clinic opened, Katsoulis said it was “an informal process” for Greeks to get proper legal assistance.

“They would either contact their priest and ask for help and the priest would reach out to any attorneys they knew,” she said. “Or through word-of-mouth where someone (happens to) know a lawyer. But that lawyer might be an environmental lawyer and they don’t know how to write a will.”

“We got together and figured out there’s a need for some formalized process. How can we get people the help they need?”

The Hellenic Bar partnered with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services — where Katsoulis interned for a summer and stayed with the group for two years — to open Hel.LAS. Katsoulis, Hel.LAS’ program chair, remembers the restless moments before the first day Hel.LAS opened with 20 volunteer lawyers ready to work.

“We were all very nervous,” she recalled. “Was anyone going to show up for the first day? Are people going to find us? Is our signage OK? On that first day we had a line out the door. We learned we had to be efficient and cap it at 10 appointments per day.”

Katsoulis noted that since opening Hel.LAS, the group has handled a wide swath of cases, including many immigration cases. Those immigration cases required Hel.LAS to lean on Chicago Volunteer Legal Services to provide volunteers a crash course in immigration law.

“We took it back to basics,” she said. “We teamed up with CLVS’ experts and they did CLE [Continuing Legal Education] for us. How to apply for a green card and how to fill out these (specific) forms. We’ve also done CLEs on estates and wills, power of attorney and a lot of other topics.

“They were so helpful because it empowered our volunteers to do something out of their wheelhouse and done in an environment where the pressure was off.”

Today, Katsoulis reports the group is looking to open a second Hel.LAS office, this one on the city’s South Side. As of press time, a location had yet to be formalized. In late October, the Hellenic Bar and Hel.LAS gave five law students $10,000 each in scholarships.

“It’s nothing short of mind-blowing and inspiring,” she said. “It’s incredible because it’s teamwork. As a lawyer, how do you measure success? What does success mean? Is it how many people you’ve helped? How many appointments you’ve booked? How many volunteers you have? How much grant money you can get?

“It’s everything and everyone is so excited. Our volunteers are dedicated and passionate. We are making a difference in the community. People know they can come to us for help. It’s so inspiring and motivating to keep going.”