This Woman Created the Uber of Legal Aid

Donna Peel founded the non-profit Pro Bono Network to make volunteering easy for stay-at-home moms on hiatus from legal careers.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

Donna Peel is using sharing-economy principles and woman power to help fill a dire need for legal-aid lawyers.

Peel is the founder of Pro Bono Network, an Oak Park, Ill., non-profit organization that provides about 40 volunteer lawyers a month to Chicago area agencies. About 90 percent of the 200 attorneys in the network are women and one-third are stay-at-home moms, all of whom do pro bono work when it fits in their schedule — kind of like a part-time Uber driver.

The ’s mission is to be “a force multiplier” for legal aid by making volunteering hyper-easy, Peel says. To do so, it’s harnessing the same broad workplace shift away from traditional 9-to-5 office work and toward more malleable remote and part-time arrangements that its high-tech, for-profit cousins are built on.

But rather than offering attorneys a little side income, Pro Bono Network is helping them fill a yawning social need: free legal assistance for low-income people. Legal aid resources are so meager, Peel says, that only about half of Chicagoans who qualify for assistance get help today.

“We operate in this new ,” Peel says. “We take all those lawyers who are no longer in that traditional workplace model,” and enable them to give their time and get valuable legal experience and skills, while helping assuage a serious legal crisis. “We’re innovative, we’re a disruptor” when it comes to legal-aid solutions.

A volunteering model for a gig economy

To make it easy for lawyers to participate, Pro Bono Network serves up training and clients, while removing barriers like not having malpractice insurance and backup from another lawyer. “We follow what the attorneys are willing to do, and we will do any kind of legal aid,” Peel says.

Pro Bono network lawyers serve clients with needs as simple as setting up a living will, finalizing a divorce or applying for disability benefits — and with thornier problems like resolving housing and debt-collection disputes. They provide an astonishing 70 percent of services for incarcerated mothers in Cook County and 38 percent of volunteers who do order-of-protection litigation. They make a difference in situations that “can be, literally, life and death,” Peel says.

The majority of Pro Bono Network’s clients — and there have been well over 1,000 of them over the last 5 years — are looking for brief advice and short-term representation, however. This is the primary need of people in the legal aid system, Peel says, and it also happens to be the sort of work that’s perfect for Pro Bono Network volunteers, who typically want flexibility and to volunteer for only a few hours at a time.

A former U.S. Department of Justice attorney, Peel started Pro Bono Network in 2012 for women like herself, who wanted to keep a toe in law and maintain workplace skills while on career breaks to raise families. She enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom, but also missed her legal career, and thought doing some pro bono work might be the answer. However, when Peel tried legal aid volunteering, she discovered it was hard to get training and cases that fit it into her day. It also became costly; parking fees and babysitter hours alone quickly added up.

What was missing, she saw, was a volunteer-oriented organization that did the administrative work of funneling willing volunteers through the existing legal-aid agency system — answering the phones, doing agency outreach, facilitating training and doling out cases based on who was available to help. So she founded Pro Bono Network to take an “idle resource: people with the opportunity to volunteer” and become the “catalyst to get them to where they’re needed.”

Fortifying for the long-term

Peel says she has no trouble recruiting attorney volunteers, and has grown the network so far without any advertising. Her initial focus was on creating a model that was workable for stay-at-home moms taking time off from legal careers. But by making it easy to give time, Pro Bono Network has attracted many other people. Today, its volunteers are primarily working lawyers — be they part-time, full-time or sole practitioners — 10 percent are men, and retirees are finding a place too.

Pro Bono Network got off the ground with the help of Chicago-area legal aid organizations, bar foundations and members of the local community, family and friends. It runs on donations and a very lean budget of only about $120,000 a year. Given attorneys easily charge $300 an hour, you could say Pro Bono Network provides millions of dollars in services to the community.

“That’s what I get excited about: how cheap we are for the effectiveness,” Peel says. Now with 5 years under her belt, she’s ready to “take the enormous success of this grand experiment and start widening our circle.”

“This is our year of strengthening what we have financially and making sure we’re here for the long run,” Peel explains. “Our goal is to provide a mechanism for any attorney who would like to volunteer in Illinois to be able to so.”

That means creating an advisory board and stepping up fundraising, she says. In March, Peel hosted her first fundraiser, a sold-out event dubbed “Gavels & Growlers” at a local microbrewery that earned $18,000. One of the organization’s biggest supporters this year has been the Oak Park Women’s Guild, whose members took on the task of furnishing its spartan offices. They raised money, bought furniture and put it together, and hung artwork.

“We kept saying we’re too busy saving lives to find a desk,” Peel quips. “Now, I’ve got a plant!”

It just goes to show, sharing really is caring.

Posted: May 3, 2016

Riva RichmondThis Woman Created the Uber of Legal Aid