By Christian J. Palacios

I recently attended the Leap for Justice: Celebrating LSC’s Past, Present, and Future, hosted by Northwestern Law School. The purpose of the event was to celebrate LSC’s 50th year of providing civil legal aid to low-income Americans, after having originally been established by Congress in 1974. The program boasted a variety of distinguished speakers and panelists, including the Chairman of the Legal Services Corporation, John Levi; MacArthur Foundation Board of Directors, Martha Minnow; Governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker; and the Chair of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises Inc., Chris Kennedy. Others joined virtually, including U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, U.S. Representative Darin LaHood, and more.

When welcoming the attendees and giving opening remarks, John Levi reflected on the accomplishments of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) for the past half-century, and highlighted the work that still needed to be done. Specifically, John highlighted the findings of LSC’s 2022 Justice Gap report, which concluded that low-income Americans received no or insufficient legal assistance for 92% of their civil legal problems. In Illinois, John observed, only 7% of state residents received adequate legal assistance. I reflected on these stark numbers, as a life-long Chicagoan, and recognized the daunting task of meeting the needs of civil legal aid for low-income Americans.

John then introduced Governor Pritzker, who highlighted the support that LSC has given the state of Illinois. In 2023 alone, LSC dispensed 17 million dollars to its partners to provide Illinoisans with access to civil legal aid. He also highlighted some of the accomplishments under his own administration, including expunging eight hundred thousand cannabis records, reducing the state’s prison population by 26%, increasing access to counsel programs for tenants dealing with eviction proceedings, and eliminating a wealth-based system of pre-trial detention.

After Pritzker’s remarks, we heard from a panel of business leaders, including the Founder of Paladin, Kristen Sonday; Derek Douglass, President of the Civil Committee & Commercial Club of Chicago; Laura Stein, Vice President for Corporate & Legal Affairs; and Chris Kennedy, the Chairman of the Joseph E. Kennedy Foundation. Each of them spoke about the important role the business community played in supporting and working with civil legal aid providers, and each highlighted their contributions to the state of Illinois.

There are not nearly enough legal aid attorneys to adequately service even a fraction of low-income Americans’ legal needs.

Following the business panel, Mary Smith, the President of the American Bar Association, said a few words about the important role that equal access to justice plays in a healthy democracy. One quote in particular resonated with me: “legal aid attorneys make up less than 1% of all lawyers in the country, and there are roughly 2.8 legal aid lawyers for every 10,000 people in poverty.” It was an alarming string of statistics that reminded me of the grim reality of the situation. There are not nearly enough legal aid attorneys to adequately service even a fraction of low-income Americans’ legal needs.

The final panel discussion that I observed featured Illinois’ most prominent legal service providers to low-income Americans. The panel featured Katherine Shank, CEO of Legal Aid Chicago; Clarissa Gaff, the Executive Director of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid; and Denise Conklin, the Executive Director of Prairie State Legal Services, Inc. Each one spoke about the problems facing low income-Americans and highlighted their organizations’ work and services, including child advocacy work, school dispute issues, records relief, and senior services.

LSC performs vital work for low-income Illinoisans, and all Americans, who lack access to legal representation; serving as a lifeline for those facing significant legal challenges.

I left the event feeling inspired by the important work that the Legal Services Corporation supports, and also daunted by what still remained to be done to provide Americans with access to equitable legal representation. Access to civil legal aid is crucial for individuals residing in Illinois, and anywhere in the nation, due to its potential to address systemic inequalities and ensure equal justice under the law.

Many Illinois residents continue to face legal challenges related to housing, employment, family law, and immigration status, among others. Without adequate legal representation, marginalized communities may struggle to navigate complex legal systems, leading to unfair outcomes and perpetuating cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement. As I was reminded during LSC’s 50th anniversary, civil legal aid services like Legal Aid Chicago, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, and Prairie State Legal Services can provide vital support by offering guidance, representation, and advocacy to those who cannot afford private attorneys, thereby leveling the playing field and promoting social justice.

LSC performs vital work for low-income Illinoisans, and all Americans, who lack access to legal representation; serving as a lifeline for those facing significant legal challenges. For millions of individuals across the state, particularly in underserved rural and urban areas of Illinois, the cost of hiring a private attorney is prohibitive; leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, injustice, and systemic inequalities. LSC bridges this gap by funding legal aid organizations throughout Illinois, ensuring that individuals with limited financial resources can still access quality legal assistance.

Last month was Fair Housing Month, and LSC plays a crucial role in promoting fair housing through various initiatives and programs. For example, LSC’s Housing Task Force is a dedicated body within LSC that focuses on addressing housing disparities and ensuring equitable access to housing for all. Moreover, LSC’s Eviction Report serves as a critical tool for understanding and combatting eviction-related injustices, shedding light on systemic issues and advocating for policy reform to protect tenants’ rights. In states such as Illinois, LSC supports initiatives like the Illinois Early Resolution Program, which offers legal assistance and mediation services to tenants facing eviction, safeguarding vulnerable individuals from homelessness and discrimination in housing. Through these concerted efforts, LSC not only provides essential legal aid, but also champions principles of fairness and justice in housing.

Reflecting on this, I was glad that I had the opportunity to attend LSC’s Leap for Justice event, celebrating 50 years of promoting equal justice under the law.

Christian Palacios is an Associate at Duane Morris LLP where he practices workplace class action and employment litigation. He received his J.D. from Notre Dame and his B.A. from the University of Chicago. Prior to law school, Christian worked as a legal assistant at Sidley Austin where he had the opportunity to assist the Chairman of the Legal Services Corporation, John Levi, with his mission to provide low income Americans with equal access to justice.

Leap for Justice Recap: Celebrating LSC’s Past, Present, and Future was originally published in Justice Rising on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.