By Chief Justice Anne M. Burke and Special Guest Columnist Shawn Kasserman
On June 11, 2021, the State entered Phase 5 of the Governor’s Restore Illinois plan. As a result, most businesses, schools, and recreational venues are now permitted to resume “normal” operations. In addition, all state court facilities are open to the public. I should stress, however, that resuming in-person operations does not mean that virtual platforms will no longer be used to conduct court business, where appropriate. During the pandemic, we discovered the benefits that remote capabilities have provided both attorneys and litigants. Consequently, holding hearings, meetings and other court procedures remotely will remain an option going forward.
These have been challenging times. COVID-19 has instigated many changes for our justice system. Please know that my colleagues on the Supreme Court and I are grateful for the tireless work, perseverance, and dedication of the entire legal community throughout this past year. Now, as we are finally emerging from the COVID public health crisis, we will be facing a new challenge – the remapping of our judicial districts. As you know, on June 4, 2021, Governor Pritzker signed into law Public Act 102-0011, which redraws the boundaries of our five judicial districts. In response, the Supreme Court entered a “pause” order on June 7, 2021. This order was necessary to avoid the uncertainty and confusion that would inevitably result from the shifting of circuits into other districts. A Task Force has been created to help us ascertain what steps need to be taken to ensure a seamless transition. I thank everyone for your patience.
Now, allow me to introduce you to my guest columnist, Shawn Kasserman. Shawn graduated from the DePaul College of Law in 1990 and began practicing personal injury law at Corboy & Demetrio. He became a partner there in 1998, and in 2013, became a founding member of the law firm, Tomasik Kotin Kasserman, LLC. Throughout his career, Shawn has earned recognition, not only for his extraordinary skills as a litigator, but for the compassion and respect he shows his clients. Year after year, he continues to be named a “Top 100 Super Lawyer” in Illinois and a “Leading Lawyer” by the Leading Lawyers Network.
Today I have asked Shawn to tell us about the Illinois Lawyers Trust Fund, an organization in which he serves as President of the Board of Directors. I thank Shawn for accepting my invitation. I am sure you will find what he has to say both interesting and informative.
The Lawyers Trust Fund supports legal aid, justice, and hope
By Shawn Kasserman, President, Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois
Do you love being a lawyer? I do, and one of the most gratifying aspects of being a lawyer is helping someone find a solution to a problem that is overwhelming them. When people turn to a lawyer they are often anxious, confused, angry, and struggling to cope with the stress arising from their legal problem. Our training and experience give us the tools to offer reassurance, provide a sense of direction, and help them achieve a just outcome.
The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois exists to make sure that those who cannot afford to pay for the services of a lawyer have access to the same reassurance, direction, and just outcomes as those who can. In 2020, the 41 not-for-profit legal aid organizations receiving grants from the Lawyers Trust Fund provided guidance, hope, and justice to people in 116,540 critical legal matters.
The stakes for those receiving legal aid services could not be higher. The most common practice areas for legal aid are housing, family law, consumer, immigration, and employment. Translated into the everyday lives of legal aid clients, this means having a healthy place to live, freedom from abusive relationships, and enough money to cover basic necessities. A far-from-exhaustive list of the problems addressed by legal aid include:
- Gender-based violence that causes physical harm for women and emotional trauma for their children;
- The neglect and financial exploitation of older individuals who can no longer manage their own affairs;
- Finding safe, stable, and supportive living situations for immigrant children who have been held in detention facilities;
- Rental units rendered unsafe by mold, bedbugs, leaks, rusted pipes, non-working appliances, and/or a lack of heat;
- Expunging or sealing a criminal record that is holding an individual back from getting a job or progressing in their career, and thus being able to build assets and support a family.
The Lawyers Trust Fund is a collective expression of the legal profession’s commitment to equal justice. Through rules promulgated by the Supreme Court of Illinois, the Lawyers Trust Fund receives interest on lawyers and law firms’ pooled client trust accounts, as well as a portion of each attorney’s annual registration fee. These sources of income enabled the Lawyers Trust Fund to make grants totaling $11,964,871 in 2020. Only the federal Legal Services Corporation generates more revenue for legal aid programs in our state.
In addition to serving as a conduit for desperately needed operating support, the Lawyers Trust Fund plays an important role as a catalyst for innovation and improvement in the legal aid system.
One critical area in which the Lawyers Trust Fund seeks to support legal aid is in combatting systemic racism. Many legal problems are manifestations of overtly racist policies (e.g., “redlining” in mortgage financing and insurance) or endemic racism in institutions concerned with issues such as education, criminal justice, and child welfare. Addressing those legal problems requires a new level of awareness, new strategies, new initiatives, and new participants.
The Lawyers Trust Fund is involved in a multi-year process of revising its guidelines, processes, and priorities to make our grants more responsive to these needs. Initial steps in that direction include moving from two annual grant cycles to one, open to both incumbent and emerging organizations; conducting “listening sessions” with community leaders and advocates throughout the state; and easing eligibility requirements and providing additional funding for newer legal aid groups based in communities of color that are tackling critical issues in new ways. The Lawyers Trust Fund is also making resources available to support our grantees as they work to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within their own organizations.
Fully examined, the stresses and anxieties we see in the faces of our clients as they confront their personal challenges become visible as the fissures and frustrations in our society at large. Legal aid services are not a sufficient response to those wounds, but they are a necessary one. The directors of the Lawyers Trust Fund are committed to doing everything we can to ensure such services are available, effective, and provided on an equitable basis.