Attorney Howard T. Goffen traces his commitment to pro bono work back to a two-word Hebrew phrase, "tikkun olam."
"Literally it means, 'To repair the world,'" said Goffen, who practices Judaism. "While I cannot obliterate hunger and I cannot stamp out violence, I'm hoping that what I'm doing, at least to some degree, heals and restores some small part of the world."
Goffen, 76, retired from his 45-year-career as a trial attorney in December 2004, and two months later began work with the Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF). Since then, he spent about 7,000 pro bono hours working on cases involving divorce, orders of protection, evictions, unemployment compensation and bankruptcy.
"He behaves like this is the career he always wanted and we don't pay him a dime," said Alicia L. Aiken, director of training at LAF, who worked as Goffen's supervisor. "We forget he's a volunteer because he behaves like he's on staff."
Goffen received the American Bar Association's "Pro Bono Publico Award" during a luncheon Monday in conjunction with the ABA Annual Meeting. The ABA's standing committee on pro bono and public service gives the award each year to five attorneys and organizations nationally.
At LAF, Goffen handles cases very different from his previous trial work defending taxicab and limo companies as managing attorney at Jesmer & Harris, he said.
For example, Goffen never set foot inside bankruptcy court and now he practices there regularly as a member of LAF's consumer practice group.
"I was doing stuff that, for the most part, I had never done before," Goffen said.
"I felt blessed in a way. It's the old story — you're never too old to learn something new. And in a way, I was giving back. Because of my litigation skills and background, I was able to help some of the younger attorneys (at LAF) with what they had to do."
Of the many people Goffen served since 2005, some remain etched in his memory, he said.
He recalled a woman he recently helped in bankruptcy court, who returned to school for an advanced degree and started to drown in debt.
"She was a lovely person," he said. "If you look at her, you would never in a million years think that this is the type of person that would file for bankruptcy, but she did."
Inside LAF's Loop office on South LaSalle Street, Goffen leaves an impact among staff, said Mara L. Block, LAF's pro bono project staff attorney.
"Everybody that works with him talks about what a rock star he is," Block said. "He is the most humble person you could possibly meet, he has no ego at all. He has just quietly gone about business here with so little fanfare."
Goffen brings in coffee almost every day for the staff, even though he doesn't drink coffee, Block said — and he often shares ice cream too.
Block's office resides directly across from Goffen's cubicle, providing a clear view of how Goffen goes about his work, she said.
"He has a gravitas about him that clients really appreciate ... I think that's not a learned skill. There's something native about it, and he just has it," she said. "It's just a true respect for human dignity."
Goffen turns 77 on Friday. Brenda Goffen, his wife of 52 years, said she remained unsurprised that her husband chose to spend his retirement doing service.
"I did tug and pull just a little bit, like, 'Wait a minute, this is retirement?'" she said.
But her husband's decision made sense after just two weeks of volunteering at LAF, she said.
"He came home, and talked about all these young people he was mentoring, all the idealism they carried and all the people he had contact with. … And I just totally got it," she said.
Goffen remained the only local attorney this year to receive the "Pro Bono Publico Award." He also maintains an alternative dispute resolution practice, the Law Offices of Howard T. Goffen & Associates.