Setting the tone

Schiff Hardin broke the mold 40 years ago

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 2019

In 1979, with the ink still wet on his law license, Paul Dengel helped his employer, Schiff Hardin, adopt a neighborhood legal clinic run by Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, or CVLS. At that time, the legal aid group had 16 clinics in space donated by community centers or churches.

Attorneys volunteered one or two evenings a month to meet with clients from the neighborhoods around these sites and help them resolve their legal issues. Most clinic volunteers were a random assortment of attorneys from a variety of firms and practices.

Generally, Chicago-area law firms weren’t involved in direct pro bono services and, although some handled impact litigation pro bono, most discouraged their attorneys from representing individual poor people.

Schiff set the standard by adopting the Howard Area Community Center, located in East Rogers Park, down the street from the northern end of the Red Line and on the border with Evanston. The neighborhood was, and remains, low income, with a diverse population of people looking for affordable housing on the city’s northern border.

The center was a vibrant neighborhood resource, employing a social worker and hosting a part-time medical clinic, job training programs, English lessons, after-school services and, once a week, CVLS’ legal clinic. Prior to Schiff’s involvement, six attorneys, most from the northern suburbs served this outpost.

Adopting the clinic meant that Schiff would, from then on, be responsible for staffing the center location every clinic night. The other, non-Schiff attorney volunteers continued to come to the clinic, but CVLS didn’t have to recruit more attorneys to replace them when they could no longer volunteer. From then on, this clinic would always have a guaranteed band of attorneys showing up four evenings a month, every month.

Dengel was one of Schiff’s first volunteers at its newly adopted clinic and he remained a clinic volunteer until last year. For 40 years, Dengel, now one of the firm’s two pro bono partners, found his way up to Rogers Park to interview clients and take cases. Why?

“I knew that poor people have their fundamental rights affected when they face the legal system alone — whether it’s custody or housing or whatever. And I knew that I could help them. So, I wanted to help them.”

These days, a law firm adopting a neighborhood legal clinic or a legal aid project isn’t news. Big Law has come to embrace pro bono in all sorts of ways, from adopting neighborhood and school-based clinics, to staffing help desks and special projects.

No firm will tell its associates that they can’t do pro bono — at least not officially. Pro bono is too important to incoming associates and for the all-important AmLaw rankings.

But not only was Schiff the first firm to see the importance of donating direct legal services to poor Chicagoans, 40 years later, it continues to send associates and partners to the Far North Side to help people from this community resolve their legal needs.

People in Chicago’s neighborhoods rarely have exciting legal issues that entice and train associates in big law firms. Clients are being evicted and need time to move. Their insurance company denied a claim or they want to file for bankruptcy. Maybe they need a divorce, or visitation or to reduce their child support.

Because that’s the thing about the legal needs of poor people — they’re not usually exciting, but they’re real. And immediate.

For 40 years, Schiff has staffed a neighborhood legal clinic to tackle the routine legal needs of the people in one community. Why? Because Schiff wants to give the community the services it needs.

That’s great pro bono.