By Nicole NeSmith, CARPLS Development & Communications Associate
In 2005, the Chicago Bar Association (CBA) and the Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) launched their first annual Pro Bono Week in honor of lawyers giving back and improving lives. The American Bar Association’s 10th annual National Pro Bono Celebration is taking place this week, October 20-26, and the CBA/CBF 15th Annual Pro Bono Week is October 21-25. This year’s co-chairs for the CBA/CBF week areHon. Nichole C. Pattonof the Circuit Court of Cook County and Katherine W. Shankof Legal Aid Chicago.
Pro Bono Week is an opportunity to celebrate pro bono and special ambassadors like Erica Spangler Raz. Erica is a longtime CARPLS volunteer and Professionals Board member, and a former CARPLS staff attorney. She currently serves as Senior Counsel and Director of Pro Bono at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
Erica joined the CARPLS Professionals Board in 2012 after serving as a staff attorney for many years. Prior to joining the staff, she volunteered with CARPLS and CLAIM, Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (which merged with Cabrini Green Legal Aid), by teaching classes to women in jail about the legal system and how to advocate for themselves, while attending law school.
When asked what piqued her interest about volunteering with CARPLS specifically, Erica said, “More than twenty years ago as a college student in another city, my roommate and I experienced an illegal lockout. Our landlord turned down our heat illegally, and we ended up calling a free hotline for help whose name I don’t recall. But I remember feeling so thankful that there was a place to call. That was the kind of help my roommate and I needed, and I wanted to do that, too.”
Erica started volunteering with CARPLS as a third-year law student almost fifteen years ago, which was very unusual at the time. “I started on the eviction hotline, and it really felt full service for clients. You could advise clients about their rights, how they could represent themselves in eviction court—and when clients needed social services for new housing or one-time cash assistance for a security deposit, you provided referrals to those agencies. CARPLS already had a vast network of social service agencies, and I’m fortunate to work with many of these same nonprofits in my current position.”
She also noted that coming into a nonprofit that efficiently used technology was a “unique experience.”
“CARPLS had the best software available hands down. I came from the software industry before law school, and through volunteering I was starting to realize that many nonprofits were not able to invest in technology. CARPLS prioritized technology from the beginning.”
She also felt secure in how knowledgeable and experienced CARPLS’ staff attorneys proved to be.
“No matter where you were or what your question was—or even if you had ten questions—they always had the answers. The technology and the access to experts on CARPLS staff makes it so easy to do pro bono. And the impact of helping a family keep a roof over their heads is an incredibly meaningful experience.”
As one of four kids, Erica credits her parents for her sense of community service and giving back. “We heard stories of family hardships when we were young, and my parents showed us how to be grateful for the opportunities in our lives. In Elgin where I grew up, there are a number of families struggling every day to make ends meet. Through various charities, our family would try to help. For example, my parents would take us out one evening to shop for Christmas presents for kids using a wish list from a charity, or make a special grocery store trip to help a food pantry stock up. We grew up knowing that the opportunities we were given weren’t as easy for others. And I have passed on many of these traditions to my children.”
She understands that there are roadblocks to being able to contribute to pro bono, such as having the specific legal area expertise. However, organizations like CARPLS remove these obstacles and make volunteering more accessible.
“With CARPLS, you don’t need to know all the answers, you just need to invest a small amount of time,” Erica said. “When it comes down to it, you can impact more than a dozen families with just one night a month.”
Our next training is on Wednesday, October 30.