Heena Musabji recognized a growing need in her community. While living in Oak Park, Heena, an attorney and stay-at-home mom, experienced firsthand the increasing need of parents who wanted to give back, but, because of the daily constraints of parenthood, were unable to do so. There was simultaneously an increasing need for voluntary legal assistance to those who could not afford a lawyer. Heena knew that pro bono models were in place in Chicago to help people in need, but ask any suburban parent who took time off from their jobs to raise a family, and they will tell you that volunteering in Chicago during the day is not as easy or convenient as they’d like. Heena, with the help of other area attorneys, put the two desires together, and in 2011, Pro Bono Network (PBN) was born.
Heena connected with attorney colleague Donna Peel, who decided to bring the pro bono model to an easier and more convenient location. Through a social connection called “mom mail,” Donna emailed moms in the area to invite them to a coffee to explain their idea. “We have a group of attorney moms who want to do pro bono work,” explains Heena. “The concept is to bring more attorneys to people in need, while respecting the schedule of a typical stay-at-home mom.” Heena has since brought the pro bono model to Hinsdale, where she currently resides.
Convenience is a key element in PBN’s model, and the agencies are aware of the requirements of working with PBN. Projects must conclude by 2 p.m. to avoid afterschool issues, and two attorneys must work on the project together so each lawyer has a backup should a situation prevent them from being able to make a meeting or appointment. Agencies contracting with PBN must come to the suburbs to train the volunteer lawyers who, for example, may have a background in corporate law but are volunteering on a domestic violence case. And, finally, the agencies must provide malpractice insurance for the volunteers.
At that first meeting, 10 moms showed up. The network has now expanded to more than 100 volunteer moms and dads who stay at home to raise families but want to give back. Mary Moran of Willowbrook is a new mom and a new member of PBN. She echoes Heena’s sentiment about the convenience and ease of giving back to the community while staying home with her children. “The Pro Bono Network is a wonderful opportunity for me to help people and to keep my hand in the practice of law, while staying home with my daughters. Flexible hours and diverse projects allow me to explore different areas of law while preparing me to re-enter the workforce someday.”
Some of the projects PBN is currently working on include Lawyers in the Classroom, a program which enables volunteers to teach grade school students about various parts of the law, including the U.S. Constitution, our legal system, and law-related careers. Heena is particularly fond of this program, as every year she participates in a second grade mock trial where students get to put the Big Bad Wolf on trial. “The Big Bad Wolf is on trial for destruction of property, and the kids are on the jury,” Heena explains. But the most satisfaction comes from hearing that the students want to be lawyers when they grow up. “One student asked me if the Big Bad Wolf has to pay child support,” says Heena. “Most of these kids have never had a positive interaction with a lawyer.”
Another project is the Tenant Advocacy and Emergency Motions. “This is a project that caters to new moms or moms who don’t want to leave their homes or can’t. They write letters or make phone calls for tenants, a lot of pre-litigation work. Women can do this at home in their pajamas if they choose,” Heena adds.
PBN also helps low-income senior citizens, immigrant victims of violence, provides telephone counseling for family law, eviction, guardianship, and consumer issues, represents domestic violence victims when they obtain orders of protection from their abusers, as well as working with low-income residents looking to obtain a divorce.
They also have a program called “Jail Clinic,” where lawyers meet with moms in prison and represent their children. PBN has helped more than 200 children by representing 115 incarcerated mothers. PBN also caters to the school calendar. Their Fall Kickoff on September 4 coordinates with kids being back in school. “Our season really is the school year,” says Heena. “We hope that other professions will tart to use this model to cater to the stay-at-home parent wanting to give back.”
-Rosie Conway // Photography by Joel Lerner