Katherine W. Shank, deputy director of Legal Aid Chicago, has been a legal aid lawyer from the start of her career. After graduating from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in 2001, she joined the organization that she now helps to lead.
For many years, her work focused on helping victims of domestic violence. Later, she ran the organization’s significant pro bono volunteer program. As deputy director, Shank is now thinking about how to serve thousands of low-income clients remotely, at a time when so many are in crisis.
She speaks with DLA Piper’s Anne Geraghty Helms, the firm’s director and counsel for U.S. pro bono programs. DLA Piper partners with Legal Aid Chicago on several pro bono initiatives, including the monthly Woodlawn Legal Clinic, the Eviction Brief Advice Desk, and the Rolling Meadows Domestic Violence Help Desk.
Helms: Let’s start with the 1,000 foot overview of legal aid. What do legal aid lawyers do and why is it important?
Shank: It’s simple. We help provide critical legal services to people who need it most. All of our clients have a legal need that impacts their safety and security—whether an eviction or foreclosure, harm from an abusive spouse or, as we have seen recently, the need to apply for food stamps or unemployment.
Our clients include the working poor, veterans, homeowners and renters, families with children, farmers, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Women—many of whom are struggling to keep their children safe and their families together—comprise the majority of our clients.
Helms: What has your work looked like since Covid-19 began?
Shank: The pandemic has posed some unique challenges. We transitioned 80 lawyers and 170 staff to remote work while providing seamless service to our clients. People needed immediate help in filing for unemployment or public benefits. We’ve seen scams related to stimulus checks and people filing for bankruptcy.
There will be a wave of evictions as courts reopen. And we know, sadly, that domestic violence and child abuse have been significant issues for people under quarantine. We know that this will be a marathon and not a sprint.
Helms: Let’s talk about racial justice. How is civil legal aid relevant to the conversations we’re all having right now?
Shank: Our work is incredibly relevant. 87% of the people we serve are people of color, and every one of them has been locked out of the justice system because they can’t afford a lawyer. We help level the playing field, and in doing so, make our justice system more fair and equitable for everyone.
Let’s take evictions. It’s well documented that the harm from evictions disproportionately impacts black women to an alarming degree. And when women are evicted, children lose their homes as well. When you go to eviction court, almost every landlord has a lawyer, and virtually no tenants do. So when we represent a tenant in court, we’re giving her a shot at a fair outcome that will help her and her children land on their feet.
This is true in so many areas where we work. We help people clear criminal records so that they can find employment. We handle race-based employment and housing discrimination cases. We disrupt the school to prison pipeline by advocating for children in schools. Racial justice is a part of everything we do.
Helms: What about the newly poor? How will you find and serve them?
Shank: We’re concerned that people who are newly poor may not realize that they’re eligible for our services. They may not be tapped in to the network of people and organizations referring matters to us. Usually, we’re out in the community, but our normal channels of getting the word out are totally disrupted due to social distancing. We’re doing our best to let people know on social media and by other virtual means that we’re here for them.
Helms: There are a lot of lawyers who want to help right now. What do you need most from volunteers?
Shank: The key with this crisis, as with any other crisis response, is sustained involvement. We deeply appreciate people taking time now to be trained and to begin volunteering so that they can develop experience and confidence. If we can build our base of volunteers now, they won’t require as much sustained, intensive support from legal aid as we start seeing huge spikes in need. It also will result in better outcomes for our clients and a richer experience for our volunteers.
Honestly, what we also need is money. We’ve had to cancel fundraising events. Donors are decreasing their gifts. So, as needs are increasing, we’re looking at handling even more cases with less money. The funding is so essential.
Helms: Long term, how will your work change as a result of Covid-19?
Shank: What the pandemic has taught us already is that there are ways to connect with communities that have been hard to reach because of geography. Take the courthouse in Markham, a remote corner of Cook County where we’ve been struggling to reach people. I’m now hopeful that there will be a way. Courts are becoming much more comfortable with technology and we’ve already gotten over hurtles that we would not have gotten over otherwise.
We’re learning a lot about engaging volunteers as well. We’re seeing that, for a lawyer with a busy commercial practice, pro bono doesn’t always have to be such a lift or such a departure, and there may be ways, remotely, to make pro bono a more integrated part of a lawyer’s workflow.
And that’s true for clients too. We think about whether lawyers are okay with leaving their comfort zones, but clients also may not feel comfortable going to an office and telling a stranger about their lives. They may not have a car, or child care, or time off of work. We may have discovered new ways to connect that works better for everyone.
In transitioning to remote services, we’ve also learned to meet clients where they feel most comfortable. Many are fine using remote videoconferencing technology. Others prefer the phone. Shoehorning people into technology that makes them feel nervous is not a great way to establish trust. You have to be flexible.
Anne Geraghty Helms is director and counsel for U.S. pro bono programs and is responsible for helping to develop, lead and manage DLA Piper’s first pro bono program in the U.S. Although principally focused on juvenile and criminal justice issues, she has worked on a range of initiatives that touch on pro bono and access to justice issues including helping found and manage the firm’s free legal clinic in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago.