Since President Donald Trump took office, volunteer and public interest lawyers have emerged in force.
Hundreds of lawyers rushed to O’Hare International Airport at the end of January to assist travelers detained by Trump’s first travel ban. Photos of them went viral with strangers applauding them weaving through swaths of chanting protesters with posters offering free legal help and huddling around laptops and cellphones at a table outside a McDonald’s in Terminal 5.
Since then, legal volunteer organizations have been flush with attorneys training in new areas like immigration law and asking what they can do to help.
“What’s happening today is the alarms have all gone off,” said Bonnie E. Allen, executive director of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Lawyers are stepping up.”
But a few months into the Trump administration, with a second travel ban also caught up in the courts, the question looms: Will the pro bono surge seen this year be sustained or will attorneys retreat back into the woodwork if the political controversies abate?
Legal need already far exceeded legal aid
To start with, there has never been enough legal help to go around, said Robert A. Glaves, executive director of The Chicago Bar Foundation.
The most recent report on the legal needs of low-income Illinoisans, which was sponsored by The Chicago Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, the CBF, the Illinois Bar Foundation and the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois in 2003, found that low-income households received legal help for only 16.4 percent of their legal problems.
Even today, Glaves said most legal aid organizations have to turn away more than half of their potential clients just due to a lack of resources. The CARPLS hotline is only able to take one in three calls.
Even before the new legal needs under Trump created by the travel bans and reprioritization of which undocumented immigrants get deported, more people need an attorney than there have been attorneys to help.
Pro bono has always fluctuated
Rates of pro bono work have risen and fallen over time in waves as specific issues individual attorneys care about are threatened, said a former leader of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
“Lawyers are like people and when you see activism in the larger community, you’ll see activism within the lawyers’ community as well,” said Harvey Grossman, who was executive director from 1980 to 2015.
Benjamin C. Weinberg, a pro bono partner at Dentons, said firms like his have been doing immigration representation by taking asylum cases through the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center work for years. They already care about the issues, he said.
“There’s not a political switch that now that there’s a different party in the office, firms are going to start doing the same thing,” Weinberg said.
However, since the election of Donald Trump, some legal aid organizations have been flush with attorneys and others asking how they can help.
The NIJC had a training session scheduled for a few days after the president’s first travel ban was signed on Jan. 27. Those sessions are normally offered quarterly, with 40 to 50 attorneys signing up for each one. But this time around, more attorneys registered than the room could fit, forcing the NIJC to schedule an additional training session the next month for anyone past the 130th person to sign up.
Similarly, the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Pilsen Law Center hosted a full house of 50 attorneys at their first-ever immigration bond hearing pro bono training session in late February.
Allen said she and the rest of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights have gotten several calls from attorneys — often younger ones — who have never been involved with the group before. And Katherine E. Walz, the director of housing justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, said even retired attorneys have been asking how they can help.
“I am hopeful — I’m confident that once they form a relationship with us and the other nonprofits in the area, that that will have a lasting effect,” Walz said.
But while the immediate crisis “gets the juices flowing,” Weinberg said, most attorneys who work pro bono generally don’t quit their day jobs.
“They may maintain that interest, but if you’re at a law firm, you’re going back and working on a capital markets field,” he said. “You’re not tearing off your suit and saying, ‘From this day forward, I’m going to be a public interest lawyer.’”
There are exceptions, Weinberg said — like one former partner who recently left Dentons to work in the public interest for the Animal Legal Defense Fund — but attorneys won’t keep up volunteer work unless a pro bono organization keeps them coming.
“If you don’t have those lasting institutional changes, they won’t stick around,” Weinberg said .
Pro bono ‘one piece of the puzzle’
While pro bono ranks may be swelling in the near term, Glaves said effective public-interest advocacy needs more than just a lot of volunteers.
“These surges of pro bono interest don’t typically solve the problem,” Glaves said.
While hundreds of attorneys hopped on trains and cars to help travelers at O’Hare and other major airports, it was ultimately the class-action lawsuits filed by the ACLU that led to federal judges enjoining the enforcement of the bans.
Still, those legal aid organizations were put in jeopardy by Congress in 1996, which banned any legal organizations receiving federal funding from filing class-action lawsuits and cut available federal funds significantly.
“(Pro bono is) one piece of the puzzle – and it’s an important piece – but going back to the ’90s, pro bono cannot make up for a cut of hundreds of million of dollars,” Glaves said.
Organizations already exist
There are already more than 30 legal aid organizations in the Chicago area with lots of big firms and private attorneys interested in volunteering.
John M. Bouman, the president of the Shriver Center, said Chicago not meeting all legal needs doesn’t mean the city needs another organization as much as more resources to existing organizations.
“Now with the Trump administration, there's something pretty much every day,” Bouman said. “We have to coordinate, and we have to make sure we're not duplicating with each other. We're basically all on the same team.”
Preventing duplicate efforts is one of the efforts the CBF leads, Glaves said.
It’s not often that entirely new organizations form to serve a niche. A more recent example would be Illinois Legal Aid Online, which was founded in 2001 after Glaves and other legal aid leaders met and determined that there wasn’t already an organization addressing how the new technology called the internet could be used to help legal aid.
The first way the CBF has been supporting the recent wave of legal volunteerism is directing people towards existing organizations that are already working in that area of the law. Glaves said most of the recent legal needs predate the Trump administration but may have been exacerbated.
But, as major changes to legal need loom, Weinberg said the legal aid system will have to change to match it, rather than just expanding by adding numbers.
One huge need change could come with immigration. In remarks to a joint session Congress on Feb. 28, Trump said the U.S. should shift its visa-granting priority from reuniting families toward a professional merit-based system like the ones used in Australia or Canada.
“That’s sort of a fundamental reordering of our immigration system,” Weinberg said. “If that happens, it can’t be same old same old. It can’t be just a few more people show up. There has to be a different way of ordering things.”
But, Glaves said, new legal need could mean a new program at an existing organization, rather than an entirely new and separate organization.
ORD Lawyers HQ, a group with more than 1,400 attorneys on an e-mail listserv, had been staffing O’Hare with lawyer and translator volunteers day and night since the chaotic weekend that the first travel ban went into effect. In March, the Council on American-Islamic-Relations Chicago launched its new Traveler Assistance Program, staffed by ORD Lawyers HQ volunteers.
Instead of the ad hoc group of volunteers — many of whom did not previously know immigration law — becoming their own organization, the pro bono efforts at O’Hare became an official program of the Chicago office of the largest Muslim legal firm in the country.
“It was only logical for a lot of lawyers on the ground to be working with the organizations that have been working with the Muslim community since day one and already have those connects to the Muslim community,” said Hoda Katebi, a spokesperson for CAIR-Chicago.
The ORD Lawyers HQ e-mail distribution list will continue as a rapid-response referral service for volunteers and a tool to connect members with other legal support organizations and training opportunities.
Matthew D. Pryor, counsel for Cook County’s Shakman Compliance Administrator’s Office, was one of the volunteers who led ORD Lawyers HQ and is now one of the coordinators of the new CAIR-Chicago program. Pryor said the ad hoc group was never meant to become a standalone organization.
“These organizations already exist in the community and it’s just a matter of getting all these attorneys and interpreters with new or renewed interest connected with these organizations,” Pryor said.
‘When the dust settles’
Bouman isn’t sure what it will be — a new method to coordinate response to legal need, a new organization or maybe a greater commitment from private firms to do pro bono work — but he expects some sort of lasting change in public interest law.
“Something this big – there will be changes when the dust settles,” he said.
For now, Allen said she thinks it’s a great opportunity for legal aid organizations to raise more money.
“I mean, look at the ACLU,” she said.
Before Trump, the ACLU usually got about $4 million a year in online donations. In the few weeks after Trump won the presidency, the nearly 100-year-old ACLU received an unprecedented $15 million in online donations. Then, after Trump’s first travel ban was enacted, the organization received more than $24 million in online donations in one weekend.
The organization even made several red carpet appearances at the end of February, as celebrities like Emma Stone, Ruth Negga, Karlie Kloss, Barry Jenkins and Lin-Manuel Miranda sported bright blue “ACLU” ribbons at the 89th annual Academy Awards and criticizing the new president.
Chicago organizations are gearing up too, and Allen said she expects the Lawyers Committee’s fall fundraiser to do especially well this year.
Allen said the Trump administration’s policies have been “a wakeup call” for pro bono, but she isn’t sure if it will lead to lasting change in pro bono efforts.
“I definitely think we'll see a spike,’ she said. “Long term, will that be sustained? I don’t know. How bad are things going to get?”