For nearly 30 years, attorney Mary Ann Smith has run a law clinic sponsored by Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and by Old St. Mary’s and St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic churches.
After decades working from Visitation Church in Englewood, volunteer intake workers and lawyers now see low-income clients on the third Saturday of every month at Old St. Mary’s in the South Loop.
The lawyers then provide follow-up services in such matters as adoption, guardianships, wills, divorce, bankruptcy, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer complaints and debt-collection defense.
Smith retired in 2012 as vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
But she hasn’t stopped working.
In addition to the law clinic, Smith works part time as the director of Illinois Tech’s Chicago-Kent Patent Hub, a program that is part of a national network of patent hubs and that matches low-income inventors with volunteer patent attorneys.
CL: How did the clinic start?
MAS: The Catholic Archdiocese had a parish-sharing program that matched more prosperous churches with churches with fewer resources. In 1988, my church, St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park, was paired with Visitation Church in Englewood.
In addition to sending money, we set up the legal clinic at Visitation. The clinic recently moved to Old St. Mary’s because Visitation needed the space.
Initially, the volunteer lawyers mostly came from St. Thomas. One was my cousin. Another was someone with whom I went to law school. We recruited lawyers wherever we could find them.
CL: How many people volunteer for the clinic, and what is their background?
MAS: I have 24 lawyers now. I also have eight intake workers.
Most of the intake workers are paralegals or social workers.
We have a good variety of lawyers. Some are in small practices. One of them is a police lieutenant. One’s a retired social worker. One is a litigator. One is a former assistant state’s attorney.
In any given month, we have volunteers who can handle the cases of the clients who come in.
I take on cases myself. I’ve done a number of adoptions and adult guardianships.
CL: Why did you get involved with volunteer work?
MAS: I just thought that it’s something everybody should do. I think everyone who is able should do some volunteer work.