Dina Merrell: Goodbye to Chicago’s Legal Aid Trailblazer

March 23, 2021

by CARPLS Legal Aid

After a 25+ year career in public interest, Dina Merrell is moving on from The Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) to new adventures. She is a quiet leader who prefers to stay out of the limelight. We are certain that this warm sendoff will embarrass her, but we believe it is long overdue.

Dina is a graduate of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and was instrumental in developing their Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) that was established in 2009 for Chicago-Kent alumni. Michelle Vodenik, Senior Director of Public Interest at the law school, recounts Dina’s involvement:

“Dina Merrell was an integral part of LRAP. We counted on Dina’s expertise, as she knew the in’s and out’s of developing funding programs to support lawyers who commit their lives to public interest law. Dina continued her service on the LRAP committee for eight years and has left us with a lasting legacy.

In addition, Dina was well known for mentoring and supporting the next generation of public interest leaders—she was always willing to be a resource to all who asked, and her commitment to public interest law was unwavering. We are so proud to have such a committed public interest leader as an alumnus of Chicago-Kent.”

That is just one small example of the tremendous impact Dina has made in her legal career overall and particularly in her time at the CBF. Through 16 years of work at the CBF, Dina Merrell built a following of admirers. Dina connected donors, board members and volunteers within the legal aid community to so many opportunities through her careful grant making and relationship development and played a lead role in implementing a number of innovative programs that have made big improvements in access to justice and made our pro bono and legal aid community better for all concerned. We collected only a small portion of praise from her friends and colleagues.

Carina Segalini, Court Administrator, Circuit Court of Cook County

“Dina provided an invaluable contribution to the legal aid programs and help desks that are operating in the courts. Dina’s advocacy to promote equal access to legal aid during litigation helped court programs and help desks succeed. Because of her commitment, Dina’s work ultimately empowered self-represented litigants to understand and navigate court proceedings. Dina’s expertise and commitment will be missed, but the invaluable impact of her work will remain with our court programs.”

Carrie Di Santo, Global Chief Compliance Officer and Managing Director of ERM, CME

“The legal aid community in Chicago won’t be the same without Dina! Dina’s work on behalf of the CBF has made a difference to countless individuals and organization in our legal community. Her calm and organized presence and big warm smile were helpful in all our efforts, big and small. Hers will be enormous shoes to fill at the CBF and in our legal community.”

Chuck Smith, Partner, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

“Dina knows everybody. But lots of people who know everybody use that to make their own lives better. Dina has for so long used her connections to make every organization that touches legal services to the poor in our community better. We are so grateful for her impact, and will miss her judgment, commitment, and warmth.”

Allegra Nethery, Pro Bono and Philanthropy Partner, Seyfarth Shaw LLP

“I first met Dina in 2007, shortly after I became the Pro Bono and Philanthropy partner at my firm. Bob and Dina met me for coffee and told me about their work. Soon after, they asked me if I would be interested in joining the CBF board, but at that time I wasn’t ready. I did agree to join the grants committee, and for most of the time I was on the committee, Dina ran it.

The rigor and formal process that she helped bring to the grant making process at the CBF really helped make the legal community grow stronger. There is transparency into what organizations are doing, and there is an understanding of the value that these organizations bring. She also set a great example for me in running our firm’s charitable giving. I learned so much from her!

Professionally, she has to be one of the most, if not the most, organized, thorough and detail-oriented people I’ve ever come across. There was not a question that a committee member could ask that Dina hadn’t researched or knew beforehand. She also just has this really quick wit. She has a very dry sense of humor, and I really love that about her. I will miss seeing her and talking to her at all the legal aid events!”

Kimball Anderson, Partner, Winston & Strawn, LLP

“Karen and I really enjoyed working with Dina on the Anderson fellowships and other CBF access to justice initiatives. Her deep knowledge of, and commitment to, the public interest community will be sorely missed. Good luck to Dina with her new life in upper Michigan, where I understand fur trapping and logging are very big. Please stay in touch!”

Karen Anderson, Adjunct Professor, University of Illinois College of Law

“Dina has been a great friend and resource. During many of the years since the inception of the Anderson Public Interest Fellowship in 2003, Dina was the CBF Liaison. Dina was always helpful in organizing the selection committees and in helping me through the process. I frequently called to get her input. On another occasion I was looking for a new volunteer opportunity. After some brainstorming with Dina, she introduced me to Equip for Equality. Ultimately, I ended up serving on EFE’s Board for 8 years. To this day, I remain on its Finance Committee. It’s been a rewarding experience. Dina definitely will be missed by me and by the Chicago legal community.”

Greg McConnell, Senior Pro Bono Counsel, Winston & Strawn LLP

“I had the great fortune of hiring Dina as a staff counsel when I worked at the ABA Center for Pro Bono as their Director back in the late 90s. Dina’s got an incredible amount of maturity and calmness. Dina’s an old soul. She’s very capable of assessing things and putting them in very practical and understandable terms. She has a respect for others.

Her greatest contribution is that she kept Bob Glaves in line for 20 years! The CBF has played such an integral role in our community, and what Bob and Dina have done is just incredible. He needed someone who they could rely on to implement a lot of the ideas and programs. Dina was the perfect person because she really reveled in being able to give projects life.”

Tom Morsch, Retired Partner, Sidley & Austin LLP and Professor of Law Emeritus and Emeritus Director of Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law, Pritzker Northwestern School of Law

“The volunteer committee that annually selects the winner of the CBF’s prestigious Public Service Award owes so much to Dina Merrell. The award, which our family supports, recognizes lawyers with legal service organizations who have exceptional skills and devotion to the clients they represent. Dina knows everything there is to know about the Chicago legal service community and has been able to provide insights about individual achievements and challenges overcome. It’s been a wonderful 16-year partnership. We will miss you, Dina.”

Bill Conlon, Retired Partner, Sidley Austin LLP

“Dina is one of a kind. The CBF, under the leadership and superb efforts of Bob Glaves and Dina, has flourished at a time when there is much demand from so many for charitable financial support. Under Dina’s watchful eye, every dollar is guarded and thoughtfully dispensed to the groups providing assistance to our most in-need communities. Dina’s impact cannot be truly measured, though we know her work and contribution to the CBF, the CBA and the community have been absolutely outstanding.

Doing a site visit with Dina to one of the agencies funded by the CBF is an experience. She treats each visit as if she is going to see old friends. And the folks at the agency greet her as a respected and trusted friend because she is. She does her homework, knows the agency well, raises issues if there are any and reports back to the Board on each agency with candor, concern and support.

Dina makes people at those agencies feel as if their conversations with Dina are the most important conversations Dina will have that day. And for Dina, she treats each one of them as the most important.”

Betty Balli Torres, Executive Director, Texas Access to Justice Foundation

“Dina will be missed in our community; we will miss her pragmatic approach to solving the problems of the day and of working on innovations in the legal aid delivery system. In particular, I had the pleasure of working with her on the board of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), where we focused on trying to make a significant impact on the lives of immigrants. Dina’s approach to complex major issues is thoughtful, rational, reasonable and sprinkle in humor.”

Dina has also spent time helping others beyond the legal aid community.

Stephanie Pacheco, Executive Director, Links Hall, an artistic incubator organization for the development of new performance programming

“Dina’s insight, intellect, and compassionate commitment to nonprofit work has been a gift to Links Hall, where she’s served on the Board of Directors for nearly a decade. I’m always grateful for Dina’s ability to harness skills in support of communities—from the grit and grind of business operations to the glitz and glamour of arts events. Her work has strengthened and sustained Links in so many ways, and I know we’re not unique in feeling the impact of her contributions to Chicago.”

Genita C. Robinson, Principal, GCR Consulting LLC

“I have worked with Dina in multiple capacities, and I hope to work with her again in the future. I first met Dina when I led Lawyers Lend-A-Hand to Youth starting in 2008. By then Lend-A-Hand was a stand-alone nonprofit, but the program had originated at the CBF and continued to share space with the CBA. Dina has graciously served on the Mission Sustainability Initiative Advisory Committee for my work with Forefront for three and half years, and the CBF is now my client for a strategic planning engagement.

Three things that I will miss about Dina at the CBF are her reliability, her integrity, and her laugh. Dina steps up when you need help, and I have appreciated being able to rely on her candid insight. I really love her laugh. I am not sure if I would call it a chuckle or something else, but if you have been privileged to hear it, you know that it, like everything else about Dina, is genuine.”

From the CARPLS team, it’s hard for us to imagine Dina not being a part of CBF.

Al Schwartz, Executive Director, CARPLS

“At CARPLS, we echo everyone’s sentiments above. She is such a part of the legal aid family and has made our programs—especially our court-based advice desks in the Daley Center and at Administrative Hearings and general hotline—an important initiative in the delivery of legal services. Also, she has been an extremely important partner in the Early Resolution Program (ERP). We love Dina and have so much respect for what she brings to the table.”

And, we leave the best for last with a final thought from Bob Glaves, Executive Director of The Chicago Bar Foundation.

“It is hard to know where to even start in talking about what a great friend, colleague, and partner in the cause Dina has been since the time I met her. She is a great lawyer and leader and an even better person, and she just consistently gets things done—good things.

When the CBF recently celebrated our 70th Anniversary, we looked back at the foundation’s growth and influence over the years and created a timeline to commemorate the highlights of that impact. There is a clear upward spike on that timeline beginning in 2004, and it is no coincidence that is the time when Dina joined the CBF staff. She has left quite a legacy of good, and we wish her all the best in her next act up in Michigan.”

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