Throughout law school, I demonstrated an interest in public service by volunteering with an Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Clinic, where I experienced firsthand the value and need for pro bono work. This experience prepared me for my first legal job, which is running the Low Income Tax Clinic at Prairie State Legal Services. Prairie State provides free legal advice and representation in tax controversies to low-income individuals. The Clinic provides services to individuals residing in 36 counties in northern and central Illinois outside of Cook County. The work done at the Clinic is of critical importance to many low-income individuals and families. Some of the issues that clients face are: denial of anti-poverty credits (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit); tax problems stemming from identity theft; tax problems related to domestic abuse; penalty and subsidy issues relating to the Affordable Care Act; and wage and benefit garnishments imposed by the IRS.
While working at Prairie State, I became active with the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. After working with one of its publications for several years, I was appointed as the Director of the Disaster Legal Services Program, where I manage a team of Vice Directors and oversee the Divisions DLS program, which operates through a memorandum of understanding between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Legal Services Corporation (LSC). During my time as DLS Director, I have participated in 26 disaster declarations, which included large-scale disasters in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas.
One disaster sticks out in my mind, and serves as a reminder as to why the DLS program is so important, and why the work from pro bono volunteers is critical. In August 2016, I travelled to Baton Rouge shortly after historic flooding destroyed thousands of homes in the area. Streets were littered with debris, and you could see a line of discoloration on homes and buildings, some as high as six feet, which indicated how high the water levels were just a few days prior. I met with representatives from FEMA, the Louisiana Civil Justice Center, the Red Cross, and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, to help coordinate a response. Thanks to the dedication from these groups, and volunteer attorneys, we were able to provide legal assistance to hundreds of disaster survivors.
Disasters are especially difficult for those living in poverty. Without a safety net or other resources to rely on, those living in poverty are especially vulnerable after a disaster. For example, where can such person turn to when their landlord threatens an eviction after the unit was untouched during a recent flood (so the landlord can take advantage of the scarce supply of undamaged properties and re-rent the unit at a premium)? Who will help disaster survivors challenge FEMA benefit denials? The DLS program aims to find answers to these questions by providing free legal help for disaster survivors with insufficient means to hire an attorney. The program fills a need that will remain unmet without our help, and I am tremendously grateful for my opportunity to participate in this worthy program.