1963: The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and 'early adopter of pro bono'
In 1963, Bernard G. Segal, a lawyer who would become famous for his work advocating for the poor and aiding the civil rights movement, asked U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to have the president host a meeting for lawyers on civil rights.
President John F. Kennedy invited 250 lawyers, representing every state and Puerto Rico, to attend a meeting on June 21. A total of 244 came, founding a group that later became the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. They galvanized private attorneys into volunteering to ensure compliance with civil rights court orders, filing cases to desegregate and protecting the rights of peaceful protestors.
“The Lawyers Committee model was a really early adopter of pro bono,” said Allen, whose previous positions include leading and consulting for other nonprofit legal organizations and directing the American Bar Association’s Center for Pro Bono.
Before then, pro bono had started with legal aid societies in major cities that were founded by the private bars, Allen said.
The group registered as a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., in 1963 and opened an office in Mississippi in 1965. The Chicago office was opened in 1969, shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. brought his civil rights fight to Chicago, focusing on housing discrimination.
Nowadays, the Chicago Lawyers Committee has about 50 member law firms, Allen said, which all pay a contribution to have priority on pro bono work.
1993: The Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge and the place of pro bono
Pro bono work has increasingly become a recognized part of being a lawyer, Allen said.
“You get sworn in as a new lawyer and somebody hands you a pamphlet or something about pro bono opportunities in the city,” Allen said.
That’s thanks, in part, to the Washington, D.C.-based Pro Bono Institute’s Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge.
“I would say that was a game changer,” Allen said.
Since 1993, the Pro Bono Institute has challenged law firms with 50 or more lawyers to commit 3 to 5 percent of the firm’s total billable hours to pro bono each year.
Allen said the challenge helped law firms get competitive with each other as they publicized their pro bono work. It became part of their branding efforts to recruit younger lawyers, too.
Big firms have developed more structure to support pro bono, hiring dedicated pro bono counsel and sometimes subsidizing that work.
Around the same time, the American Bar Association and state and local bar associations became more active in promoting nonprofit organizations and encouraging pro bono work. The ABA, for one, asks its members to do 50 hours of pro bono work a year in Model Rule 6.1.
“It’s just been made more of a priority,” Allen said.
1996: Congress restricts what work federally funded legal aid organizations can do
Congress slashed the already-shrinking Legal Services Corp. funding by a third and banned several types of legal services. The restrictions didn’t just apply to projects funded by the LSC but to all services provided by LSC-funded organizations. Those organizations could no longer file class-action lawsuits, represent prisoners or most immigrants, advocate for policies or alert elected officials of problems they’d encountered unless specifically invited in writing to do so.
“LAF was the big organization here and it was a huge jolt to the system,” said Robert A. Glaves, who is now executive director of The Chicago Bar Foundation.
John Bouman, who was supervisor of the public benefits specialty unit at LAF at the time, recalls that 15 to 20 of LAF’s 75 to 80 attorneys left then.
Some went into private practice, worried if LAF was going to be able to continue at all.
(LAF did, in fact, continue, without the restricted programs. It remains one of the biggest legal service providers in the area and 47 percent of its budget in 2015 came from the LSC.)
Others, including Bouman, hopped ship and continued their now-restricted work elsewhere.
“We saw it coming,” Bouman said.
The regulations came after a long standoff between the Congress led by Newt Gingrich, who wanted to defund the LSC entirely, and the Bill Clinton White House.
Bouman and five other former LAF attorneys joined forces with what had been the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services.
The Clearinghouse, which had been a repository of case documents and other information for civil legal aid organizations across the country, had also “seen the handwriting on the wall,” as Bouman said.
Its staff had gotten much smaller as the LSC drama loomed, so there were plenty of empty desks and computers for former LAF attorneys to take over by the time Congress restricted LAF’s work and eliminated the Clearinghouse’s entire funding.
“It was a risk,” Bouman said. “We knew we had found a place to go and we had the beginnings of the support to make it work, but there was also the chance that it wouldn't work. We would all be out of work if we couldn't raise the money to keep it going.”
Glaves, who was chair of the CBA’s Legal Aid Committee that year, attended a lunch strategy meeting for the combined group. With everything going on, he thought there’s no way a new legal service organization could get the private funding it would need to sustain itself.
“If I were betting at the moment, I would have thought there’s no way they would have made it,” Glaves said.
“I was very happy to be wrong about that,” he said.
The new combined organization was renamed a few years later after politician, activist and philanthropist Sargent Shriver, becoming the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which both files class-action lawsuits for low-income clients and advocates for policies.
“It was a prolonged crisis, but here we are,” Bouman said.
The Shriver Center is the biggest of the organizations formed by former LAF attorneys, Bouman said, but others include the law project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the Family Defense Center, the law project at Health & Disability Advocates and the AIDS Legal Council that’s now part of the Legal Council for Health Justice.