By Emma Cueto of Law 360

Walking into a Chicago eviction courtroom can be intimidating — it’s crowded, noisy, chaotic, and the average person often doesn’t know what to expect or what they’re supposed to do or say. And to make matters worse, it’s estimated that roughly 85 percent of tenants in Cook County eviction cases don’t have an attorney.

In an effort to combat that dearth of legal advice, DLA Piper teamed up with two local aid organizations to launch a pro bono eviction court help desk in May 2018. It’s a project that the firm’s pro bono counsel Anne Geraghty Helms told Law360 has been in the works for a long time and is already starting to expand now that it’s up and running.

“Our pro bono teams had been having a lot of conversations … about what we could do as a firm nationally to help the flood of unrepresented litigants, who find themselves in eviction court with no information about the process or how to represent themselves,” she said, explaining that the firm reached out to local groups to get a sense of how they could have an impact.

“What I heard was that we really need more lawyers in the courtroom,” she said.

The help desk, which is in operation a few days a month, is staffed by volunteer attorneys and people from the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing and LAF, formerly Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

When someone comes to the desk for help, attorneys assess the case and either offer advice and assistance themselves or hand off the more complicated cases to the specialists from Legal Aid Chicago and LCBH.

Volunteers don’t formally represent the tenants, but they can help explain the process, instruct the tenant on how to ask for a continuance, or conduct informal hallway negotiations with a landlord’s attorney, Helms explained.

Helms herself has done shifts at the desk and said it’s a gratifying experience, though so far attorneys might only help a few people per shift.

“I really try to emphasize it’s free,” Helms said of trying to attract tenants to come get advice. Once people do come over, she said, the goal is to get the details on their situation and figure out what outcome the tenant is looking for, whether that’s being allowed to stay in their home, or being able to leave under specific conditions.

It’s a mission that Helms herself believes in deeply, but she said the nature of the help desk model makes it an easy and attractive option for attorneys looking to do pro bono work.

“It’s very bite-sized for lawyers,” she explained. “Lawyers come in and spend two hours working a shift at the help desk. They walk away without having taken on a case for full representation. It’s easy to plug into.”

It’s also something that can have a big impact.

“The volunteers have learned so quickly and they’re really great at it,” said Julie Pautsch, an attorney and pro bono coordinator with LCBH.

Pautsch and Melissa Picciola of Legal Aid Chicago explained that eviction court faces a massive volume of cases — over 30,000 per year according to a 2017 LCBH estimate — meaning the judges often are focused on moving quickly and dealing with cases as expediently as possible. For people unfamiliar with the process, that made it difficult to fight for a good result.

“Eviction court is designed to move fast,” Picciola said. “What we were seeing was people were agreeing to eviction orders because they didn’t understand the process and they were being pressured by the judge and the landlords … and not understanding what this could do to their ability to rent in the future.”

For those who rely on government subsidies or for low- to middle-income people and are simply trying to find housing they can afford, Piccola said, having an eviction in your past can be “catastrophic.” More and more, she said, landlords are looking up potential tenants’ histories and rejecting people who’ve previously been evicted out of hand.

By giving people the tools to fight an eviction proceeding or negotiating a more favorable solution with their landlord, she said, the eviction help desk can keep someone from ending up on the street and ensure they are able to find stable housing in the future.

So far, the help desk is still small and has only advised about 80 people, but it’s starting to grow. When the desk first launched, it was located in an unused jury room in one of the five courtrooms used for first appearances in eviction cases, and it was only able to help tenants appearing in that courtroom.

In 2019, however, the program started transitioning into the courthouse hallway, making the desk more visible and allowing it to help anyone coming to eviction court on the days it’s in operation. DLA Piper has also brought more firms on board and already trained some attorneys from other firms to participate. Between DLA Piper and other firms, 15 attorneys have completed a shift so far.

Logistically, it’s still tricky to manage, Helms said, and the program is trying not to get ahead of itself.

“We are approaching this carefully,” she explained. “We are trying to figure out how to handle staffing and the flow of clients [and] volunteers so that we are able to serve as many tenants as possible while ensuring that tenants do not miss their case being called.”

And support for it has been growing in the courthouse, Pautsch added. Although judges were initially skeptical and seemed concerned that the desk might disrupt the courtroom, she said, they’d come to see it more favorably. Even the attorneys representing landlords have come to expect the volunteers to be there, she said.

“We thought a little information could go a long way,” Pautsch said. “And that turned out to be true.”

–Editing by Pamela Wilkinson.

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