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., nonprofit organization that provides about 40 volunteer lawyers a month to Chicago area legal aid 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 Pro Bono Network’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 gig economy,” 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.

Read Full Transcript

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