As part of its 125th anniversary, Chicago's Legal Aid Bureau is changing its name back to the Legal Aid Society.
The society has a long record of working to rescue women from prostitution and domestic violence, protect children from sexual assault, provide free legal assistance to indigent criminal defendants before public defenders were created and much more, said Executive Director Kendra Reinshagen.
The group has many imitators in cities around the nation who use the name Legal Aid Society, Reinshagen said. It had many of its first achievements under that name, so the board recently decided to go back to the earlier name.
The full name today is Legal Aid Society Metropolitan Family Services.
As one example of its efforts, Reinshagen said the group, or one of its predecessor agencies, worked to get the age of sexual consent raised in Illinois. That age was once 10.
"It's pretty shocking," she said. The group managed to get the law changed so that the age of sexual consent was raised to 14. "That was a victory," Reinshagen said. "They were going for higher. That was all they could get at the time."
The society that today has eight lawyers, four paralegals, eight staff and an annual budget of $1.6 million started out in 1886 as the Protective Agency for Women and Children, Reinshagen said.
The intent of the agency "was to use the legal system to get people out of poverty, primarily to protect women who were being forced into sex trafficking" and to help women who were victims of domestic violence, Reinshagen said.
Domestic violence was not then recognized as a crime, she said. And young women were then sometimes kidnapped and forced into the prostitution trade.
The agency would attempt to rescue them, protect them from any criminal charges as a result of their forced prostitution and help them get housing and get started again, Reinshagen said.
Legal help originally was provided by male lawyers who volunteered their time. Female lawyers were rare as the concept of the female lawyer had just been recognized under law.
"The whole pro bono movement started with our agency" and a similar agency in New York City, Reinshagen said. "Now it's pretty accepted as an obligation."
In 1886, Clarence Darrow's Chicago Bureau of Justice began. That group, Reinshagen said, was founded to help some criminal defendants, provide legal assistance to people who were being evicted from their homes and represent victims of consumer fraud.
The Protective Agency and the Bureau of Justice merged in 1905 to create the Legal Aid Society.
When they merged, she said, "they had as part of their bylaws that half the board would be female. At that time, that was pretty rare. They were a very progressive group."
In 1910, Reinshagen said, the Legal Aid Society worked with Jane Addams to establish a clinical education program at Northwestern University School of Law.
Reinshagen called this "the first law school clinic." Law professors and attorneys from the society supervised students who represented indigent defendants charged with crimes.
In 1919, the Legal Aid Society merged with Metropolitan Family Services, a social service agency, and adopted the name Legal Aid Bureau Metropolitan Family Services.
Today, Reinshagen said, the group still provides both legal help and social services for thousands of clients.
The group provides legal advice and up to full legal representation for more than 7,000 clients annually.
It provides social services for about 50,000 people annually, Reinshagen said.
Among its social services, the group helps people through psychological counseling, mentors teenage mothers, provides after school programs and offers a "young African-American male initiative," Reinshagen said, that tries to help young black men get jobs and keep their lives on track.
In legal help, the agency's biggest program is assistance to victims of domestic violence. The agency also offers legal assistance to people facing eviction and mortgage foreclosure and represents people threatened with loss of their public housing or Section 8 housing.
The Legal Aid Society also has a large program to assist abused elderly people.
Chicago police and the Chicago Department of Aging refer elderly people who may be being exploited by a relative or acquaintance to the Legal Aid Society, Reinshagen said. The society can get the abusive person evicted from the elderly person's home, she said.
In line with its original mission, the Legal Aid Society just started a new pro bono project to help victims of sex trafficking file civil suits "against anybody who profited from that activity," Reinshagen said.
"We've got law firms lined up who want to do the cases. … We've met with the state's attorney's office to form a kind of collaboration" and also the Cook County sheriff's office and the Chicago Police Department to assist the Legal Aid Society in its fight against sex traffickers.
Board member Gregory S. Bailey of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager & Flom LLP said he started out doing pro bono work for the Legal Aid Society when it was the Legal Aid Bureau, mainly divorces that often arose out of abusive family situations, he said.
Last year, he was offered the opportunity to become a board member. "I jumped on it. I was excited to be part of it. I knew the long history, 125 years. That's amazing when you think about it."
The society's most important work is providing access to the legal system for people who otherwise would not have it. "The new sex trafficking initiative is really part of that," he said.
And "being affiliated with Metropolitan Family Services is a huge benefit. It allows us to provide a holistic approach," to not only get a person out of a difficult situation but also provide "the support that someone might need to get back on their feet."