Things that go Trump in the night

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.

January 2017

We are afraid.

In these very early days of the Trump administration, the legal aid world is afraid — of the known and the unknown. What does a Trump administration mean for low-income people in America?

As far as Chicago’s legal aid community knows, President Trump does not have an opinion on legal aid. Most community leaders believe that he has been blissfully unaware of its existence. I mean, how likely is it that he has ever met with, spoken to or thought about a legal aid attorney? Or client? Not very.

As a result, no one thinks that legal aid, in general, is in his crosshairs. People in his administration, however, are undoubtedly lining up legal aid issues and, possibly, legal aid programs, in their crosshairs right now. We don’t know what’s going to happen and that makes us afraid.

Then, there are the things we do know that make us afraid, such as the views of the president and his Cabinet picks on immigration, civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, public housing and public education.

The good news, however, is that our fear isn’t causing paralysis: It’s generating action. The legal aid community is mobilizing. We are marshaling our collective commitment to fight for and defend the poor, the disenfranchised and others who need our help.

And our mobilization includes you, Mr. and Ms. Pro Bono Attorney.

Attorneys mobilize in a crisis. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, the American Bar Association, Legal Services Corp., National Legal Aid & Defender Association and Pro Bono Net formed the Katrina Legal Aid Resource Center to identify and coordinate the maze of legal, government and insurance issues and to serve as a resource to legal aid and private attorneys.

While the current administration and political climate in Washington isn’t on par with Katrina yet, the pro bono and legal aid worlds are preparing for action.

There are pro bono opportunities now for attorneys who want to fight fear with action. In Chicago, two agencies have special and immediate needs.

The National Immigrant Justice Center needs volunteer attorneys to represent immigrants and asylum seekers facing deportation. They are also looking for attorneys willing to travel to area jails to conduct “Know Your Rights” presentations to detainees and volunteers to research and litigate unfair immigration and customs enforcement apprehension, detention and fast-track deportation practices.

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wants attorneys to work on hate crime, voting rights and police accountability litigation issues. Additional civil rights issues may present themselves once the administration starts exercising its authority.

That’s just for now. As the unknown becomes known, it is likely that legal aid and pro bono organizations will need more help representing people in subsidized housing cases, helping clients with special education needs and working on any variety of areas that impact poor people. Like they do now.

While legal aid will need pro bono attorneys more than ever, the work won’t be all that different from what pro bono attorneys currently do. Anyone still sitting on the fence might as well jump in now. Why just worry and fret when you can get busy helping people who currently need you? If things get worse, you’ll be ready. If they don’t, you’ll be relieved and feel good about your pro bono work.

Here’s some good news: While this country appears to be divided, most Americans still believe in fairness — not just for themselves, but for others too. The vast majority of Americans are, in their hearts, kind.

The legal community is demonstrating that kindness. Attorneys who have never volunteered are looking for ways to help. Legal aid programs are collaborating on projects and resources. Nationally, big firms that normally compete for business are working together to grow funding for legal aid and share projects that fight for the poor and disenfranchised.

In these dark winter days, don’t give in to fear or pessimism. Join the collective commitment and work together to improve the lives of all Americans.