Rachel Zemke

28 | Staff attorney | LAF

Chicago legal aid lawyer Rachel Zemke has carved out a necessary practice at the intersection of personal finance and domestic violence.

Zemke works for LAF (formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago), the city’s largest legal aid nonprofit. A feminist, she knows domestic violence encompasses more than physical harm. It’s about controlling another person, and sometimes that control is financial. She’s fought credit bureaus and creditors to erase debts abusers ran up in victims’ names and challenged banks to modify mortgages so that leaving a partner didn’t mean losing a home. Altogether she’s worked on 151 cases since 2016, protecting $300,000 for clients facing foreclosure and eliminating nearly $411,000 in consumer debt. “Rachel saw a void, and she filled it,” writes LAF Supervising Attorney Dan Lindsey. “She wants to make sure her clients gain every advantage to overcome the disadvantages they have experienced.”

Zemke grew up in Columbia, Mo., and originally wanted to be an anthropologist. She changed her mind after a year studying in Istanbul underlined the importance of civil liberties and equal legal treatment for women. She decided to become a lawyer instead.

She interned at LAF while attending University of Chicago’s law school. In 2016, Washington, D.C.-based legal nonprofit Equal Justice Works awarded her a fellowship to work on consumer law cases for domestic violence victims. Less than 20 percent of applicants earn a slot in the program.

Her clients include a woman who accepted a ride from an abusive ex-boyfriend, only to grow terrified as he passed the highway exit to her home. After she grabbed the wheel to escape, the car crashed, and—insult to injury—his insurance company sued her for the damage.

“They didn’t know the underlying story,” she says. “Consumer law is often fighting against the depersonalization of certain consumer services and products. . . .Their business model doesn’t account for understanding the details of what happened. Part of our job is to alert the courts to the entire context.”

Zemke argued her client’s actions were necessary to avoid danger. The insurer dismissed the case.

While Zemke appreciates the importance of policy work and impact litigation, she likes representing vulnerable people directly. The work’s intensity can lead to burnout, so she relaxes with books and her rescue dog, Lola.

“I like the mixture of emotional and intellectual challenge,” she says. “I like the relationship with the client­—just knowing someone, recognizing what’s going on in their life, connecting with them.”

Publisher: Crain’s Chicago Business
Published: May 10, 2019
Written: Claire Bushey