First-Ever Firm Adoption of a CVLS Clinic: Pro Bono Leap Becomes Model for Firms Across Chicago

Schiff Partner Paul Dengel reflects back on founding the first firm-adopted CVLS neighborhood clinic – from how it all began in the early years to the reason why it remains strong 40 years later.

Paul Dengel“I had been a litigation associate at Schiff for six months, and I wanted more – more one-on-one interaction with clients and more work that provided direct legal assistance to low-income people who needed it most. I discovered that I wasn’t the only associate craving that kind of work, so a group of us began toying with the idea of starting our own clinic.

Then one day I saw a CVLS flyer posted in the firm lunchroom. CVLS was seeking pro bono volunteers from Chicago area law firms to work in their neighborhood clinics. There were 16 CVLS clinics running back then, each staffed with attorneys from different firms.

So after seeing the flyer, we asked, what if we as a firm were to take over a clinic?

We were drawn to the idea, because it would give us the direct interaction with clients who sorely needed our help. It was also a unique opportunity to build cohesion and camaraderie among young Schiff lawyers. We took the proposal to Roger Pascal, who headed up pro bono at Schiff back then, and he and firm leadership quickly gave their blessing.

Paul Dengel Quote

CVLS was excited by the idea. Having one firm adopt a clinic was an unprecedented approach that benefited CVLS. The process of recruiting lawyers one-by-one and matching them up with clinics was time-consuming, labor-intensive, and less efficient, since new lawyers had to be trained in the work between rotations.

In December 1979, we started working at the Howard Area Community Center near the Paulina “L” station. It was managed by Catholic Charities and Sister Patricia Crowley. There were all kinds of cases, including family law matters, child support and custody disputes, landlord-tenant issues, government benefits, and criminal cases. At first glance, these may have appeared to be mostly routine legal cases, but they were high stakes for the individuals involved, especially without a lawyer at their side.

We recruited attorneys in the firm to participate, came up with the schedule, and passed along tips to young lawyers for handling various disputes. Schiff lawyers staffed the clinic once a week, and each participating lawyer went at least once a month. The clinic was especially popular among young Schiff lawyers – staffed mostly by 1Ls through 3Ls. The program really built an esprit de corps among colleagues – becoming part of the “glue” of being a Schiff lawyer.

One of the keys to the clinic’s success was that it was an associate-led and associate-populated program. It was great for seasoning young lawyers, because they were not just a junior member of a team. Instead, this was their case. They had full responsibility to solve the client’s problem. Not only did we gain valuable experience as lawyers, the firm-adopted clinic became a model for other CVLS clinics, providing consistent service and increased access to justice for communities around the city.

I’m extremely proud that the clinic is still going strong today. We weren’t thinking at the time about building something that would last or about how this work could build our professional skills. That wasn’t our goal – the goal was to do our part.”

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