Four ways to give back

Quartet shows how you can still make time for pro bono

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.

September 2014

What do a family law practitioner, an estate planner, a corporate lawyer and a law professor have in common? In addition to their law licenses, these four attorneys have figured out one of the keys to professional success and personal satisfaction.

Along the way, they each acquired a nifty award from The Chicago Bar Association and The Chicago Bar Foundation, along with the accolades of their peers.

“Hmmm,” you think, “how can I do that too?” Three words: Pro bono, baby!

Family law attorney Jill Metz has dedicated her professional life to advancing the cause of LGBT rights through her practice and her work on American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois board.

As far back as 1991, Metz secured a ruling that custody of one’s child could not be denied because of a parent’s sexual orientation.

More recently, her work helped secure passage of a landmark amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act — protecting gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination — and passage of Illinois’ civil union and marriage equality laws.

From her initial volunteer stint at a free legal clinic in the LGBT community 35 years ago to serving as pro bono counsel on significant LGBT ACLU cases, Metz has donated thousands of hours of her professional and personal time advocating for human rights and civil liberties. That work and dedication earned her the Edward J. Lewis II Pro Bono Service Award.

While some attorneys take on pro bono projects different from their daily grind, others incorporate what they know and do into their volunteer work.

On weekdays, Brian K. Jones does estate planning and administration as a partner at Harrison & Held.

On weekends, he makes sure that Illinois first responders and their families are protected by simple estate-planning tools. Since 2010, Brian has overseen the Chicago area’s Wills for Heroes Program, created after so many first responders died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Jones personally attends nearly every daylong session, overseeing the completion of more than 2,100 estate plans for police officers, firefighters, paramedics and their families. He has also spent hundreds of hours planning, recruiting and training volunteers for these Saturday sessions.

In recognition of his dedication and hard work, Jones received the Maurice Weigle Exceptional Young Lawyer Award.

Mary Jo Quinn, recipient of this year’s Exelon Outstanding Corporate Counsel Award, does her pro bono work far from the staid corporate world of Allstate in suburban Northbrook. She began by recruiting and organizing her fellow Allstate attorneys to volunteer with her at Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s expungement help desk at the Daley Center.

Fifty-eight company volunteers have given more than 1,000 hours of pro bono services to clients trying to clear their records so that they can move on and improve their lives and the lives of their families. Now, she and some of her colleagues have added clemency work to their pro bono portfolios.

Clemency, for clients ineligible for expungement or the sealing of a criminal record, requires preparing a petition and representing the client at a formal hearing.

This is work pretty far outside a corporate attorney’s practice. Quinn’s award recognized the fact that not only has she expanded her comfort zone and that of many of her colleagues, she has brought comfort to the clients and families that she and her colleagues help.

Michael Seng — law professor, renaissance man. Seng has spent nearly 50 years in the pursuit of justice, since participating in sit-ins and registering black voters in Mississippi in 1966. As founder and co-executive director of The John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Support Center and Clinic, Seng is nationally recognized for his work in fair housing and predatory lending.

His students learn the issues and law in real time/real life by pro bono work through the clinic. Interested in expanding the rule of law in a formerly communist country, he developed an exchange program at JMLS to bring Czech and Slovak law students to Chicago for a semester every year.

He also accompanies groups of JMLS students to the Czech Republic and Slovakia for several weeks each year to learn about their laws and justice system.

In his spare time, Seng established the school’s Restorative Justice Project to help sensitize law students and the legal community to the benefits of a preventative approach to criminal justice.

His students, while noting his obvious intelligence, love him for his approachability, patience and sense of fun. His international and national accomplishments, along with his legacy of caring and overriding emphasis on pro bono and the benefits of giving to others, earned Seng this year’s Leonard Jay Schrager Award of Excellence.

While the accomplishments of these four attorneys seem daunting, what they really did was let pro bono lead them to greatness.

Follow their lead and let pro bono lead you to greatness, too.