October 03, 2012
Assisting clients in navigating the ins and outs of the often complicated legal system is what lawyers are trained to do. As Margrethe Kearney, an associate in Latham’s Chicago office, puts it, “We can navigate the system; it’s part of what we are good at as lawyers. So, we should help other people get through the system.”
This simple principle has guided what has become one of the Chicago office’s most successful pro bono initiatives — its domestic violence clinic.
The clinic grew out of a partnership between Latham and the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence. The goal was to devise a program that would enable lawyers from private firms to get involved in domestic violence cases on a pro bono basis at the earliest possible stage — when the victim is filing for an emergency order of protection.
Filing Emergency Orders of Protection for Pro Bono Clients
The process of filing for an emergency order of protection is designed to be easy enough to be completed without a lawyer. In practice, however, things don’t always go smoothly. “It’s kind of like doing your taxes,” said Kearney, who is one of the lawyers who spearheaded the effort to start the clinic back in 2006. “You’re supposed to be able to do it yourself, but most people don’t because it’s so hard.”
Victims’ confusion about the legal basis for the order can lead to the denial of requests, and many of those who are successful fail to follow-up in order to obtain a long-term order of protection. “It’s intimidating to have to keep going into court,” says Kearney. “The hope was that, if we got private law firms involved at the emergency stage, people would be more likely to continue the process and get long-term orders of protection.”
Meeting Challenges & Reaping Benefits
However, getting large firms involved in these sorts of cases is not an easy task. “It can be difficult for large law firms to take on pro bono cases on an emergency basis, because they don’t have specific systems in place to speed up the conflicts and approvals process,” said Kearney. “Latham was able to create specific, expedited processes so that we could take on a domestic violence clinic client within 10 minutes and still follow all of the firm’s intake procedures.”
With the process in place, associates from Latham’s Chicago office began heading down to the courthouse to take cases. They found that not only were they providing an important service to someone in need, but they were also, in turn, being provided a rare opportunity to hone their litigation skills early in their careers. “This is one of the few opportunities that an associate at a major law firm gets to actually go in and handle a case from start to finish in a short period of time,” said Michael Faris, one of the partners in the Chicago office who supervises the clinic.
Work of this nature has benefits when it comes to landing billable clients as well. “I believe pro bono work plays an important role in determining Latham’s standing in the community,” said Faris. “I think many of our clients are sensitive to issues like community service, and they are looking for the partners that provide services to them to have those same values.”
Latham Guides Development of Pilot Program
In 2009 the Cook County Domestic Violence Court approached Latham with the idea to create a pilot program for other Chicago law firms, based on Latham’s model. Kearney and Faris jumped at the opportunity and became part of the program’s steering committee. Today, more than a dozen firms participate in the clinic.
This level of interest makes sense to Kearney, who says this is a compelling issue for lawyers looking to do pro bono work. “This is a group of individuals who need help,” she said. “You can’t necessarily change someone’s entire circumstances, but being able to keep someone in a safe situation can go a long way in terms of helping that person get his or her life together.”