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Chicago Law and Education Foundation

A Model of School-Based Legal Services

By Dennis Kass

The Chicago Law and Education Foundation has developed a sustainable school-based model for delivering legal services and education to low-income Chicago families. Based in Chicago Public Schools, the foundation uses high schools as a vehicle to connect legal services directly with families in need. A school-based legal services model in 85 percent low-income Chicago Public Schools offers a unique opportunity to take legal resources and education to low-income students, families, and communities. While this school-based program offers exceptional opportunities, it is not without its challenges.

The Original Idea

The concept behind the Chicago Law and Education Foundation has evolved over the past ten years. I first had the idea to open a law-themed high school or a school-based legal clinic when I applied to law school in 2002. After law school, I began teaching at Chicago’s public Little Village Lawndale High School. During my first year there, students began approaching me with legal questions after they discovered that I was an attorney. Consequently an impromptu legal clinic operated between and after classes as students regularly sought my legal advice. 

With the assistance of several students, the Little Village Lawndale Legal Clinic opened for the 2009–2010 academic year. Parents could walk in, fill out the appropriate intake forms, and tell the attorney their problems. I had worked with legal aid offices, including a summer with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, and modeled much of the school clinic’s intake process, such as the intake form and retainer agreement, on those I had seen in other offices. Throughout the year the clinic served about a hundred clients, many of whom were students.

Little Village Lawndale High School was an ideal place to initiate the project. It is a high-poverty school with 96 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch, reflecting the dense poverty levels shared by a majority of Chicago’s public schools. Students originate from the South Lawndale/Little Village community, a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American community, as well as North Lawndale, a predominantly low-income African American community on Chicago’s West Side.

After one year of the Little Village Lawndale Legal Clinic, the program evolved into the Chicago Law and Education Foundation, a fully incorporated nonprofit. These factors led to the decision to transform the project and register as a 501(c)(3) organization: First, the foundation would be eligible for more grant and funding opportunities since donors almost always require nonprofit status. Second, as an incorporated entity, the foundation could function better as an organization, for example by indemnifying its volunteers and employees. And, third, as a nonprofit organization, it could more easily secure insurance, open bank accounts and make purchases, receive aid and support from other organizations, and maintain a level of public legitimacy.

The Expansion Project

With the success of that first year, we recognized the need for the program at other schools and in other communities. Our research confirmed the gap between the legal problems of low-income communities and their ability to find relevant and affordable legal resources. In fact, an estimated 50 percent of Chicago’s low-income families face a legal problem each year (Rob Paral and Associates & Chicago Bar Foundation, Legal Aid in Cook County: A Report on Basic Trends in Need, Service and Funding 10 (Nov. 2010)). The Chicago Law and Education Foundation surveyed Little Village families in the spring of 2009 and found that 87 percent did not access legal services because they did not know how to find affordable legal help. 

We selected additional schools for the first-year expansion after e-mailing every high school principal in Chicago, reviewing the responses, and choosing the schools that appeared willing to work with us and commit resources to our program. We decided to expand to Farragut, Hancock, Tilden, and Kelly High Schools. They were all located on the South Side and Southwest Side of Chicago, a short drive from Little Village Lawndale. Farragut had hosted a legal clinic founded by teachers a few years before. After they left, and after a Skadden Fellow ran the clinic for two more years, the clinic was slated to close. Based on its mission to support school-based legal clinics as a long-term sustainable model, the Chicago Law and Education Foundation took over Farragut’s clinic. 

While the need for such clinics was evident, creating and expanding the project was not quite as clear. At its infancy, the program was a patchwork of ideas and services, but we needed to formalize the program before expanding and replicating it outside Little Village Lawndale High School. We began by redesigning the free after-school walk-in legal clinic. In the first full expansion year, the Chicago Law and Education Foundation did not have the personnel to run weekly after-school legal clinics at all five schools; we had only two volunteer staff members—a recent college graduate and I. We decided to host weekly clinics at Little Village Lawndale and Farragut and monthly clinics at the other three schools. 

To maintain the expansion, we needed a growing volunteer base to cover the legal clinics. Because I worked at Little Village Lawndale, I could manage the program there and its day-to-day operations, navigating the school’s bureaucracy, finding space, advertising, recruiting assistance, fostering relationships with established community organizations, and identifying the logistical needs to connect with students and families. Fortunately, during that first year, a handful of attorneys volunteered to take on some of the responsibilities at the other schools. When we expanded to the additional four schools, we improved the volunteer plan. We advertised the opportunity on the Illinois Pro Bono website and met with volunteers for an informal interview (see Illinois Legal Aid Online, Illinois Pro Bono. We scheduled all legal clinics on days when the volunteer assistant was available so that she could attend in case an attorney could not. This year, although we expanded to nine schools, I have had to cover only a handful of the non–Little Village Lawndale clinics myself. The legal job market being poor, several out-of-work young attorneys have been able to assist.

Our expansion has benefited from having some bilingual volunteer attorneys. For those volunteer attorneys who are not bilingual, interpreters are stationed at each school to assist in translating during client meetings. Those translators are usually counselors who work with students and families. Many of the legal materials, including pamphlets and websites, have been translated (or are being translated) into Spanish and Mandarin, with Polish set for the near future. Some Advanced Placement Spanish students and their teacher have helped translate the materials.

School-Based Legal Programs 

The Chicago Law and Education Foundation operates a variety of programs, including after-school legal clinics, open-house legal events, and special legal and educational initiatives such as the juvenile criminal record expungement initiative.

After-School Legal Clinics. The organization’s early role was largely to serve as an intermediary between low-income families in Chicago Public Schools and already available legal services. At Little Village Lawndale, the legal clinic was open after school, once per week, for three hours. However, a considerable number of clients were students and families who approached me throughout the day and week. At all of our clinics, clients can walk in without appointments and receive free advice and referrals on any legal problem they have. We do not have the capacity to take appointments or to handle many cases. As recommended by other community-based attorneys, a successful after-school legal clinic serves five clients during a two-hour period. In that time some of our clinics attract up to ten clients—a number that can become unmanageable for the attorney. 

Legal Open-House Events. The second major program that the Chicago Law and Education Foundation runs across the participating schools is a legal open-house event during the officially scheduled Chicago Public Schools report-card pickup nights. Because of our unique relationship with the schools, we are able to set up tables with know-your-rights pamphlets, other legal materials, and attorneys to staff them. In fact, having attorneys at the open house allows thousands of families to access legal educational materials as well as attorneys to answer questions. 

Legal Initiatives. Schools offer unique opportunities to connect with low-income families on specific legal problems of the community. In Chicago many schools have “all-call” programs to phone a prerecorded message to every school family. The all-call program can be used to relay a short message about an upcoming legal clinic or about a topic such as tenants’ rights, including additional resources or contacts. Many schools also regularly publish school newsletters in which short articles on relevant legal issues can be written and distributed. Schools offer unique opportunities to launch specific legal initiatives; schools are excellent locations to educate students about issues such as domestic violence or criminal rights. 

Last spring the Chicago Law and Education Foundation launched a school-relevant legal program, the juvenile criminal record expungement initiative. More than 27,000 Chicago juveniles were arrested in 2010, but only eighty records were expunged (Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, Update: Confirmed Numbers of Juvenile Expungements in Cook County (June 14, 2011)). One of the best ways to connect with expungement-eligible youth is through schools. We initially had trouble obtaining rap sheets from the Chicago Police Department, but, after partnering with DePaul’s Center for Public Interest Law, the Chicago Law and Education Foundation is working directly with the Chicago Police Department’s Juvenile Record Department to offer free expungement services for graduating seniors whose criminal records qualify. Buses from each school escort students to obtain their rap sheets, which are reviewed by volunteer attorneys. Attorneys and law student volunteers process the applications and any fee waivers and represent the students at hearings. Through this initiative, the Chicago Law and Education Foundation should be able to expunge the records of all eligible seniors at our participating schools. These students will benefit from expunged records as they apply to college or seek post–high school employment.

Essential Partnerships

The Chicago Law and Education Foundation partners with several traditional legal services agencies these ways: First, many legal aid providers allow us to refer our clients to them, giving our clients the chance to skip or quickly navigate through intake to receive quicker and more direct aid. These partnerships are crucial within a school-based model, where clients have varied legal issues requiring specialized legal training. Because the Chicago Law and Education Foundation does not have the capacity or personnel to cover every area of law affecting school families, we refer clients to relevant agencies.

Second, partner agencies contribute attorneys to our open-house events. These attorneys staff the open-house tables, meet with families, and offer free legal advice and services. These attorneys serve as the much-needed staff for these large events, and the open house gives those agencies an opportunity to market their programs to families in attendance—a group that is often otherwise difficult to reach.

Third, partners work on specific legal initiatives. For example, the Chicago Law and Education Foundation has partnered with Cabrini Green Legal Aid to conduct the juvenile criminal expungement initiative. We do not have the resources to process expungement applications for a large number of student clients. Cabrini Green Legal Aid, however, specializes in expungement services and performs much of the legal work, allowing us to focus on organizing the initiative within the schools and with the Chicago Police Department. 

And, fourth, partnering with outside organizations gives us a legal “safety net” for what is otherwise a legal triage model. Our attorneys can contact partner attorneys with questions about law, procedures, resources, or referrals—a necessity for a developing organization.

Challenges of the School-Based Legal Model

Significant challenges can arise in a school-based legal clinic. Organizations or individuals who adopt a school-based model must be prepared to organize a clinic and have no clients in the early stages. They must also find patient volunteer attorneys who are comfortable with these early “failures.” 

Educating Clients. While our programs offer access to legal services to thousands of families in our network, we still face the challenge of connecting with the families who need those legal services. Many families do not realize that they have legal problems in the first place—a barrier that we continue to break down with our educational initiatives. It is the greatest barrier to delivering widely needed services. We originally required host schools to carry the burden of advertising our services. Some schools did an excellent job; some schools did not. Those that were successful connected with community organizations in or around the school and community. They also better used teachers and counselors to identify students and families with legal needs. Other successful strategies were seeking additional community partners, advertising in neighborhood newspapers, and working with churches. One strategy that has never been successful is creating flyers to distribute to students. Students are notorious for never taking home materials distributed to them at school. Any flyer that enters a backpack will not necessarily make it to the parents at home.

School Bureaucracies. A primary hurdle of a school-based clinic is navigating the different personalities and bureaucracies of individual schools. Those considering implementing this model should be prepared for schools not to fulfill their promises and obligations with the clinic. They should also be prepared to arrive on the first day of a clinic and find that virtually no one in the school knows that the clinic is coming or what the legal clinic is, despite the amount of preparation that goes into setting it up beforehand. There may be no officially designated space for the clinic because schools often have little available space they can guarantee for the clinic.

As beneficial as school newsletters can be, to take full advantage of them, a school-based legal program needs a staff member who can coordinate among several schools and write articles of different lengths with seemingly random due dates. Although we have been able to have articles published in these newsletters, navigating individual schools and the personnel responsible for the newsletters can be challenging.

Volunteers. The initial group of clinic and open-house volunteers for the Chicago Law and Education Foundation showed us the challenges of managing volunteers. Some attorneys committed to cover a clinic but never showed up. Some canceled at the last minute. Firms promised attorney volunteers but did not fulfill those obligations. We were occasionally left scrambling. If a volunteer attorney from our organization does not show up, the program suffers considerably, especially if we develop a reputation for being unreliable. A school may even reconsider spending personnel or financial resources on our programs. We quickly learned the importance of a reliable volunteer base; we also needed a second staff member scheduled to cover the clinics. Even if that staff member is not an attorney, the staff member can damage-control and manage intake at the clinic if the attorney does not show up; an attorney could later contact clients and follow up on their legal problems. For the open-house events, we have had difficulty finding volunteers to cover informational tables and attorneys to cover the awkward hours of 1:00–6:00 p.m. To secure more reliable volunteers, we plan to experiment with paying a small stipend.


The benefit of legal services and education programs for students and families far outweighs the challenges of initiating and operating a school-based legal clinic in public schools. As legal aid agencies and funders continue to seek partnerships and support the work of the Chicago Law and Education Foundation, we will continue to work toward our long-term goal of offering legal clinics in every high school in Chicago. In the meantime, we measure our success by the positive effects of these clinics on families who are searching for help in desperate situations. Working with clients in the clinics, I have seen the relieved look on the face of a father whose family was on the brink of homelessness, the hopefulness of a young woman when she gets an order of protection to stop domestic abuse in her household, and the optimism of the young teenage parents as they receive the legal and social services they need to stay in school and protect the health and safety of their child. And such relief and optimism, after all, should be the purpose of the law.

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