Unemployed lawyers become volunteers

When Rob Adams’ father died two years ago, he decided to take a break from practicing law to follow in his dad's footsteps by working at a car dealership.

But when he was ready to return to lawyering, Adams found a dearth of legal jobs in the bad economy.

Luckily, his legal skills will not dry up as he volunteers through a new program called CARPLS Works.

Launched last month, CARPLS Works uses unemployed and underemployed attorneys in the Chicago area to provide legal help to a growing number of low-income clients.

It's the product of CARPLS (Coordinated Advice & Referral Program for Legal Services), a legal aid service that operates a hotline and provides other help to low-income residents.

Through CARPLS Works, a marriage has been made between the increased caller volume to the CARPLS hotline and an increased number of unemployed lawyers.

“It’s a good opportunity. It’s something you can put on your resume that would have value for any prospective employer to see that, while you were out of work, you were very productive in helping to give back to your community,” says Allen Schwartz, Executive Director of CARPLS.

In response to the higher call volume, the organization decided to seek out volunteer attorneys, and posted an online job opening. 

Aside from the very first answer from an anonymous out-of-work lawyer outraged at the prospect of being asked to work for free, the response was overwhelming and positive. 

Seeking to fill only 40 volunteer positions, CARPLS received over 100 resumes in just a few days, and removed the job posting. 

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Schwartz says. “We were very excited and pleased but after the resume deluge continued, it took a little of the pleasure out of it. We were witnessing a very large community of unemployed attorneys out there. It went from sweet to bittersweet. But, then again, we met (them) and they have been really upbeat and really positive.”

The organization trained the volunteer attorneys in the areas of landlord and tenant issues, consumer debt and family law matters. 

With a commitment of only four hours a week, the attorneys are able to attend to the otherwise full-time job of finding a job. 

Adams, a 31-year-old Naperville resident, is still working at the car dealership while he makes the transition back into law. He spends part of his day off during the week at CARPLS.

“This is perfect. This is a way to get back into the law, thinking like an attorney again, and get some experience that will make up for the fact that it’s been about two years since I practiced law,” says Adams. 

For Kathleen Dravillas Olivi, CARPLS Works also works for her. Olivi is a mother of three who spent 18 years at the Attorney General’s office before moving her family to Southern California, where she worked in a large practice defending corporate clients. For personal reasons, the family decided to move back to Chicago, and Olivi is looking for a job while volunteering at CARPLS Works.

“It’s really good to be here because I’m learning some new areas of the law and opening my eyes a little bit wider,” says Olivi. “From the moment you turn the phones on to the moment you walk out the door, there are calls waiting. It gives you a sense of the magnitude of the problem of poverty and the problems that people face.”

The Chicago Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bar Association, also sees the mutual benefit.   

“It makes the best of a difficult economic situation,” says Kelly Tautges, Director of Pro Bono at the foundation. “(The lawyers) can take the time to give back to the community and utilize their skills in a meaningful way while looking for whatever they are going to do next. “

Adams, of Naperville, says: “Just coming here definitely makes everybody feel good. It helps lift everybody’s spirits a little bit."

He added:  "We get folks that have nowhere else to turn. They’re always very, very grateful. They (hang up) with a smile and we hang up with a smile as well, knowing that we were able to help them in what is, obviously, a difficult time.”