Samira Nazem has used her impressive legal skills to fight for those who lack access to justice during her entire legal career, from her years as a legal aid lawyer at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing to her time pursuing new programs and policies on behalf of people without lawyers in the Civil Justice Division of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.
It’s little surprise, then, that Nazem continues this fight today as director of pro bono and court advocacy for The Chicago Bar Foundation.
Margaret Benson with Chicago Legal Volunteer Services works frequently with Nazem. This young attorney, Benson says, boasts not only exceptional legal skills but a deep sensitivity to the needs of the most vulnerable members of society.
Nazem leads The Chicago Bar Foundation’s advocacy efforts with the courts, concentrating on promoting policies that make them more user-friendly for people without lawyers. She also leads the organization’s pro bono program, working with law firms and legal aid organizations to strengthen the pro bono community in Chicago.
These efforts include working with legal aid agencies that run courthouse advice desks for people who have cases but can’t afford counsel. Legal aid staff attorneys and volunteers triage these clients, provide legal advice and help them complete basic forms and motions. They are supported by an AmeriCorps program that places college students and recent graduates in the courthouse to serve as docents.
Nazem oversees them all, Benson said. And she does it well.
“I’ve seen her navigate turf wars with diplomacy and juggle disparate views of how things should be run with grace and composure while accomplishing exactly what she needed to accomplish,” Benson said. “She is unfailingly kind and polite. She listens carefully and expresses herself with clarity and confidence.”
Nazem also serves as the staff attorney for the Circuit Court of Cook County Pro Se Advisory Committee, which works to improve the coordination and effectiveness of the services provided to unrepresented litigants.
“As is common with most bar association committees, staff does the work to ensure that the committee is effective and productive. Samira is that staff person,” Benson said. “She is the one on the ground who communicates and implements the committee’s policies.”
Cook county Circuit Judge Alison Conlon said that Nazem has been instrumental in expanding the resources available for people without lawyers. For example, Nazem played a key role in refining courthouse procedures for handling fee waiver requests after e-filing was introduced in Cook County. She also had a prominent role in proposing a Supreme Court rule to allow an exemption from e-filing for litignats who would otherwise be unable to access the court system.
“She is always spotting new issues where access can and should be increased,” Conlon said. “Samira is passionate about expanding access to justice for self-represented litigants. She has an amazing command of resources and people, and beyond that is able to think outside the box about new initiatives.”
One such new initiative that comes to mind is a partnership with the Harvard Access to Justice Lab to create a virtual reality experience for litigants to better understand and prepare for their court experience.
“This is but one of many examples of her innovative thought as it relates to the critically important issue of access to justice,” Conlon said.