Donna Peel: On a Mission to Bolster Legal Aid

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


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Donna Peel – Founder – Pro-Bono Network

Donna Peel (DP): I really love this work.

DP SOT: So can you tell me about why you’re here today?
-I’m trying to get a reduced fee.

DP: To give people the dignity of knowing that they have a right to the judicial process and to have an attorney help them along the way, it's extraordinarily powerful.

CARD: Donna Peel – Founder – Pro Bono Network – Oak Park, IL – USA

DP: The Pro Bono Network brings attorneys to people who really need legal aid. There is a real legal aid crisis right now so there’s always a call out for volunteer lawyers to help. Any attorney who wants to volunteer and isn't volunteering just because it's impractical, that's who we are here for. We are here to make it practical for them to volunteer.

CARD: Donna was born and raised in Detroit, the oldest of three children.

DP: My father was a CPA and my mother was a prosecutor in Wayne County. They’re very involved in politics. We had a lot of debates at the dinner table, that’s how I was raised.

CARD: Donna attended law school at Washington University in St. Louis.

CARD: After graduating in 1992 she moved to Washington D.C. with her husband Drew.

CARD: For 6 years, she worked in the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice.

DP: I reached a point in my career where I was able to pick wherever I wanted to go in the Department of Justice. The anti-trust division has a field office in Chicago so my husband and I took a look and thought that Chicago would be a fantastic place.

CARD: Their first son, Michael, was born in 2004.

DP: I never thought in a million years I would leave my career. It was very important to me. When my first child was born, for the first time I felt that I was just being torn too many places.

CARD: Donna left her job to look after Michael, and then David. But as they grew older, she wanted to go back to work part-time.

DP: I volunteered downtown at a legal aid agency. And the training times all involved going after 3:00 PM. Which meant I had to get a babysitter, I had to pay not-early bird parking. It sounds silly, but it all added up to being over $200 just to get myself trained. It just seemed like this should be easier.

CARD: In 2011 Donna came up with the idea for Pro Bono Network.

CARD: She put out a call for lawyers who wanted to volunteer.

Heena Misabji (HM) SOT: So has your employer directly spoken to you about any of these issues?

CARD: Heena Musabji was the first to answer. Within weeks, 10 more women responded.

DP: In order to really adequately represent your client, you have to know what the law is going to be, and you also have to know what the standards are for the agency under whom you're working.

SOT: Right, so it’s not five days from when the rent is due, it’s five days from the notice.

DP: It doesn't take very long to learn the basics of what you need to do if you're an experienced lawyer.

SOT: So these are the documents for . . .
-Oh, yeah.

CARD: Pro Bono Network coordinates group training sessions and offers a team of two lawyers on every case.

DP: One of our biggest hurdles at the beginning was in finding the appropriate legal aid work for our attorneys. What can we do that will be using their law degree, but ends before 2:00 PM? Uh, and we found out there are a lot of different types of work. One is called "one and dones," where you show up to a clinic and you help a client, but when you leave, you're done.

DP SOT: Well, you ready? Okay, we have an office in the back.

DP: Luckily, the highest need of legal aid is brief advice and short-term representation. So the type of work we do is the most needed.

DP: Today we saw somebody who had a lot of credit issues.

SOT: Have any of them, um, served you with any kind of lawsuit?
-Not yet.
-They’ve been taking out $99 while I was in the hospital.
-Yeah, where is that? Is that on here?
-It’s on there.

DP: For her, now, this could be the difference between her paying her rent, paying her heating bill — these are the choices she has to make. Which one am I going to pay? And having a lawyer help walk you through that and problem-solve it can make a very big difference to her.

CARD: Pro Bono Network now works with 10 different legal aid agencies, helping seniors, the disabled, immigrants with visa problems, and incarcerated women.

DP: Since we started, we've had over 200 attorneys volunteer. And not all women and not all stay-at-home moms, either. But the model is for that group.

DP SOT: So do you understand what you need to get?
-Mm hm, that’s why I was trying to get the application down.

DP: The rewarding part about working with legal aid is it is such a powerful tool that a very small amount of work can do a lot of good for somebody.

CARD: Supported by donations and grants, Pro Bono Network is working to expand across Illinois.

DP: And I love for my children to feel like they are part of giving to legal aid, because they accommodate me so often. They have sometimes had discussions with me on whether or not they really want me on that field trip, or perhaps I should go to the Cook County Jail that day. It’s really heart-warming; it’s a very easy way to come to work everyday.


Producers – Victoria Wang & Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Cheree Dillon
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Michelle Ciotta
Assistant Editor – Adam Finchler
Music – Killer Tracks

Posted: May 13, 2016

Nusha Balyan at The Story ExchangeDonna Peel: On a Mission to Bolster Legal Aid