Our Lawyer Spotlight series highlights Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives. These attorneys are teaching us how to adapt and thrive in the changing legal environment.

As the Department Director of Catholic Charities Legal Assistance Department (CCLA), Hilda Bahena leads CCLA’s efforts to ensure justice for all. CCLA is a comprehensive legal services department that serves income eligible individuals and families in Illinois. Client services range from legal advice to representation to community legal education in many areas of law, including family, housing, and consumer issues.

How is your firm adapting to the changing work environment?

CCLA ardently made programmatic and operational changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in the transition from in-person to telecommuting operations without client service interruptions. Services traditionally provided face-to-face and at geographic locations that were easily accessible to communities were transitioned to telephone and video conferencing platforms. Today, we continue to modify the manner services are provided to meet clients’ needs amidst changing circumstances, including hosting virtual legal clinics and providing community legal education presentations via social media. Given the significant internet connectivity and technology gap faced by indigent litigants, CCLA continues to explore manners of providing services in a manner that is accessible to all. In addition to modifying services and operations, CCLA monitors calls to identify new pressing legal issues and unique barriers faced by communities with limited resources. We are all weathering the COVID-19 storm, but for those without a life jacket or the ability to secure one, CCLA is a legal lifeline.

What challenges do attorneys in public interest civil litigation face in navigating COVID-19?

Although it is not a new concept, social distancing has highlighted the value of in-person communication in relationship building. In legal aid services, face to face meetings fortified the attorney-client relationship. Clients are more likely to actively participate in their case when they have an attorney by their side whom they earnestly trust. Presently, we are all learning new ways of connecting and building the attorney-client relationship using new platforms, such as video conferencing. This challenge has forced the legal community to explore new and different ways of establishing good rapport that breeds trust in the attorney-client relationship.

How do you maintain civility in your practice during stressful situations?

During stressful situations, maintaining civility is key to your clients, colleagues, and your own well-being and overall quality of work environment. We are each living the effects of the pandemic professionally and personally, and are navigating its impact differently. I try to empathize with those I interact with, it helps me assess and engage with those around me in a manner that is honest, responsible, and respectful.

Over the years I have found that it is important to have self-care outlets that allow you to de-stress and return to your practice with renewed energy and focus. Self-care activities such as talking to friends and family, going for walk with my dog, or traveling does help me de-stress. My favorite self-care activity is traveling, it forces me out of my daily routine all while seeing new and historic places, tasting different foods, and meeting new people. The practice of self-care results in your own well-being as well as better interaction with others in your practice.

Finally, civil interaction leads to a positive work environment and better case results. If you practice in a particular area of law and geographical area, you will likely be interacting with the same attorneys for years. It’s human nature, people want to work with people whom they like.

What long-term impacts will COVID-19 have on the legal profession?

The pandemic has forced the legal profession to be resourceful and break with practices that needed modernizing. For example, virtual court appearances save time and the court is more accessible to litigants with limited ability to get to a physical courthouse. COVID has also put a spotlight on the significant inequalities that exist in accessing the court system, especially for litigants with limited financial means. The legal profession will have the opportunity to address the inequalities that exist in the current system.

How are you maintaining your work-life balance during the pandemic?

Striking the right balance, admittedly, does not come easy for me because, I do what I love, and I love what I do. The pandemic has brought to the forefront the deep appreciation I have for my family and friends. We have learned to connect with each other in a safe manner, and instead of commuting, I go out for walks to get some fresh air and exercise. I still look forward to going out to dinner with friends, listening to live mariachi music with my family, traveling, and so much more. However, the pandemic reminds me every day that am blessed in many ways, and I am grateful.

Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Hilda Bahena here.

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