Alexander Hamilton helped by 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.

August 2016

Hamilton is cool, not a tool for the fool.

He’s mine and he’s yours, for the hims and the hers.

’Bout a guy who was poor and close to death’s door,

But he made himself up then he rose himself up.

First he fought in our fray then he went all the way.

So, why is this column about the musical “Hamilton”? Obviously, because the show opens in Chicago next month, tickets are hard to get and everyone is talking about it.

But, how does this fit into pro bono? Glad you asked.

As the musical, based on a biography by Ron Chernow, points out, Hamilton was born out of wedlock in the West Indies, orphaned as a child and grew up in dire poverty. He became one of America’s Founding Fathers, in part, thanks to charity. Friends and a few strangers, moved by his obvious intelligence and ambition, collected money for him to take a ship to New York. The rest, as they say, is history.

Charity gave Hamilton the start he needed. He had the talent, the brains and the ambition, but he may never have realized that potential without another’s help. That’s what pro bono asks of attorneys — the donation of an attorney’s time and skill to help an impoverished stranger.

Consider two of Hamilton’s primary contributions: He masterminded the creation of our national banking and monetary system, and he believed in and worked toward a strong federal government. Extrapolating from the 1790s to the current era, it’s possible to argue that Hamilton would have supported federal bankruptcy laws that give people the right to a fresh financial start.

It’s really not a stretch. Early Americans were dead set against the debtor’s prisons for which England was famous. Consumer bankruptcy protection exists today, in part because of that feeling and thanks to the fact that our federal government can pre-empt the states in certain matters.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy is federal relief from debt for individuals who, otherwise, cannot get out from under it. Contrary to popular thought, most people who file for bankruptcy didn’t deliberately live beyond their means. They fall into debt because of circumstances beyond their control. Bad things can happen to people. They lose their job when the company shuts down or moves out of state. They, or a family member, become seriously ill and the health insurance proves to be inadequate to meet the cost of treatment.

Bankruptcies give clients burdened by medical and consumer debts significant relief. It provides a fresh start to individuals and families, allowing them to work, drive a car and provide for daily necessities without the constant threat of garnishment and growing interest and fees. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy will stop a utility shutoff, get a driver’s license reinstated or make a mortgage modification more likely.

Chapter 7 cases are good starter cases for new attorneys or volunteers interested in learning a new area of law. They use case specific forms, require a short uncontested hearing before a bankruptcy trustee and don’t take too many attorney hours. At the end of the case, your client is relieved and thankful. It’s a win-win, for you and for your client.

Chicago Volunteer Legal Services has a new program that is providing attorneys with everything they need to learn and handle a simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Volunteers attend special training sessions or watch them online later. After they’re trained, they work with clients at CVLS’ offices, preparing all of the court forms on special bankruptcy software under the watchful eye of an experienced bankruptcy practitioner.

And, for those of you who already have at least a year of bankruptcy experience and are looking for a different type of pro bono project, consider helping at the bankruptcy assistance desk on the sixth floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. LAF, in partnership with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois and The Chicago Bar Association, needs experienced bankruptcy practitioners to work a three-hour shift once a month, assisting pro se bankruptcy litigants by preparing forms, helping to draft motions and answering their substantive and procedural questions.

So channel your inner Hamilton by helping low-income people use federal bankruptcy laws to get a fresh start in America. This won’t get you seats to the musical, but it will make you feel like a star.

Ham built us the banks and for that we say thanks.

While he came from austerity, he’s ours for posterity, thanks to some charity.

And his ten-dollar bill in the till fits the bill for your retail therapy.

Now it’s your turn.

Start doing some charity for your posterity.

Do pro bono. Do do pro bono. Pro pro pro bono. Do pro bono.