Traditionally our Lawyer Spotlight series has highlighted Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives. However, in light of COVID-19, legal professionals are facing new challenges that are impacting their work and home lives in a way that we’ve never experienced.
In a special Lawyer Spotlight series, we will explore how attorneys are adapting professionally and personally to the coronavirus pandemic.
Miguel Keberlein is the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services. Miguel has worked as a poverty law attorney his entire career with a primary practice area of employment, immigration, human trafficking, and farmworker issues.
How has the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services adapted to the changing work environment?
Our staff has stepped up admirably and learned to use the technological tools at our disposal to assist clients, hold remote meetings, and work in teams. We’ve been able to continue all of our services, albeit with the challenge of having much less immediate court access. It has been challenging to assist clients in need of emergency services, such as domestic violence or human trafficking because the nature of services often requires a level of contact and privacy that sheltering in place does not easily allow.
Has the demand for legal aid increased since the start of COVID-19?
I would say the demand has shifted. With courts and state agencies generally closed, we have not seen an uptick in general intake yet, but we are also keenly aware that many potential clients are living in situations that do not allow them to contact us without putting themselves in danger. We’re facing increased demands to stay on top of COVID-relief options, to communicate them to our staff and partners, and to provide support on that relief to current clients.
We’re also thinking about ways to reach our client communities in spite of social distancing. We know that clients are experiencing legal problems but also challenges in communicating the legal help they need. We’ve been working closely with pro bono partners to extend our reach with certain vulnerable communities and with other partners to create new outlets to reach our services.
What unique challenges do legal aid attorneys face in navigating COVID-19?
Closing the courts presents unique challenges for lawyers who work on emergency litigation such as orders of protection and other responses to domestic violence. Navigating the relatively narrow options still open for our clients is, I think, different than what is facing litigators for whom a suspension of court access is not as directly tied to client safety.
Additionally, face-to-face communication is critical to effectively representing clients who are trauma survivors, and legal aid attorneys are working hard to compensate for not being able to meet with our clients directly. We also have to creatively overcome our clients’ lack of access to technology—where typical lawyers have clients with access to emails, faxes, scanners, and reliable phones, legal aid organizations must bridge gaps in all of these areas for our clients.
How do you maintain civility in your practice during stressful situations?
One of the early lessons, of many, from engaging in the practice of law during the COVID-19 pandemic is that personal discipline and patience are required for the greater good of our society and striving to keep ourselves healthy and safe. It is a lesson highly transferable to our practice, in that we must work to create a justice system that works for everyone, practice personal discipline and patience in working on very emotionally charged legal issues, and remember that we are all in this together.
How will COVID-19 impact the legal profession in the future?
I think we have learned lessons about some benefits for flexible work arrangements and have built up the tech to continue to engage in that flexibility, especially if the COVID crisis continues to impact our ability to gather well into 2021. I hope the inequities the pandemic has exposed in our society will not get quickly unlearned and that the legal community will grow in the overall understanding of the critical role that legal aid organizations play in addressing them.
How are you maintaining your work/life balance during the pandemic?
I have been very blessed to continue coaching youth basketball, albeit through video chats, and seeing how well the kids on our team are finding creative ways to support one another has been quite inspiring. I also enjoy family walks each day and spending time playing guitar with my daughter.
Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Miguel Keberlein here.