Salvador J. Lopez and Kathleen M. Robson formed Robson & Lopez LLC to handle the “maximum amount” of pro bono cases while maintaining a financially healthy law firm.
Salvador J. Lopez and Kathleen M. Robson formed Robson & Lopez LLC to handle the “maximum amount” of pro bono cases while maintaining a financially healthy law firm.

Akrona Kourouma Sahan is the type of client who can easily fall through the cracks. She barely could afford her day in Cook County Circuit Court on Wednesday.

An immigrant from the Ivory Coast in West Africa who has owned a hair braiding salon in Hyde Park with her husband since 1994, Sahan faced a complaint late last year brought by an entity of the University of Chicago that had recently purchased her building.

It alleged the owner of Sahan Motherland Salon & Spa was behind on her rent by $6,675.

Sahan and her husband, Kourouma Sekou Nounory, appeared pro se at a Jan. 16 court date, arguing they paid the rent. Circuit Judge George F. Scully Jr. extended the case.

Get an attorney, he said.

By a stroke of luck, they found Kathleen M. Robson and Salvador J. Lopez — attorneys who have won a slew of pro bono awards for catching clients before they slipped into the justice gap. Their firm, Robson & Lopez LLC, was formed to take consumer-protection cases for free or on the cheap.

And that’s what they did with Sahan, charging for 10 hours of work in a case they said so far has required about 100.

But Sahan’s luck ran out for the time being on Wednesday when Scully ruled in favor of Lake Park Associates, granting the university-related landlord an order for possession, which can lead to an eviction, and a judgment of $13,426 for back rent.

The judge sided with the landlord’s version of a complicated dispute ultimately between two landlords and Sahan.

According to Lake Park’s complaint, Sahan had failed to pay rent from October to December last year, totaling $6,675.

Among a litany of other defenses, Sahan argued Lake Park had refused to cash some of her rent payments. Checks hand-delivered to the landlord worth $17,963 remained uncashed at the time of trial, according to court documents.

Robson said her client was reviewing her options in wake of Wednesday’s ruling.

Lawrence H. Heftman, a partner at Schiff, Hardin LLP who represented Lake Park, declined to comment.

The building where Sahan rents on East 53rd Street is scheduled to be turned into part of the Chicago Innovation Exchange, a university-backed incubator for startup businesses.

Lopez said the landlord pressured Sahan to break her lease, which would have expired in October 2015. She was reluctant to do so, her lawyers said, since she spent $80,000 remodeling her current location and was unsure how a move would affect business.

While Robson & Lopez didn’t get the result they hoped for, the case represents the type of client they are drawn to representing.

Their surprisingly strong, growing practice (they are moving out of temporary space in May, recently hired an associate and say they are constantly adding clients) is one model for serving a population of middle-class clients who cannot afford traditionally priced law firms but who also make too much money for legal aid representation.

Welcome to the justice gap.

Lopez said the case also highlights problems that can compound for small-business owners who can’t afford attorneys until they feel it is absolutely necessary. In many cases, such as this one, that can be too late.

If Sahan had access to an attorney six months ago, Lopez said, “I’m sure they would still be there living out the remainder of their lease. Or (Lake Park) would have bought them out if they really wanted the property.”

Efforts such as The Chicago Bar Foundation’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project have attempted to bridge the gap by lowering the costs involved with a law firm. Robson & Lopez have approached it slightly differently.

“Our biggest problem is if you call me and you need legal help and you can’t pay for it, I have a very hard time saying no,” said Robson, 42, who left a career as a mortgage banker to defend homeowners facing foreclosure, in addition to other consumer-protection-type cases the firm handles.

Lopez, who in an interview often countered or tempered Robson’s statements, stressed the firm makes no promise of free representation.

“It’s definitely not a perfect formula,” said Lopez, 32, who became friends with Robson on a mission trip to Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans while the two studied at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. The school has since given both Robson and Lopez its annual Outstanding Pro Bono Service Award.

Lopez said he became a lawyer to help people. He left his first legal employer because he said he was uncomfortable that decisions there were based on profit.

Robson & Lopez’s business model, meanwhile, is to make enough money to support themselves, an associate and paralegal and then to do the “maximum amount” of pro bono work they can handle.

At one point, 50 percent of its cases were pro bono, Robson said. That number is now closer to 33 percent, Lopez said, clarifying Robson’s guess of one-quarter.

Robson said she knew the balance between paying clients and pro bono work was askew early in her private practice when Edward I. Grossman, executive director of the Chicago Legal Clinic, inquired about how much pro bono work she was doing. He started by guessing it took up about 5 percent of her practice.

“Kathleen is an extremely Type-A person and a driven person,” said Grossman, whose organization honored Robson in May with its James D. Jacobson Memorial Award for pro bono service.

“And she’s driven by good things in life — the desire to help others. And she’s blessed with a wealth of talent in the law to put that to good use. The thing is, she won’t be there to help other people … if she doesn’t make the correct balance between running a viable law firm and doing pro bono work.”

Lopez said the firm is not a volume practice — a firm that relies on a large flow of low-maintenance, repetitive legal filings — because it litigates cases including bankruptcies.

But for the work it gets paid to do, including real estate closings, mortgage foreclosure defense and construction disputes, it has the mindset of constantly needing to replace those clients. Networking is vital, they said.

“To do this type of work, you have to have a huge referral network,” Robson said. “There are more cases for lower dollar amounts. I have a huge referral network from my previous career and from growing up here. I think it’s very, very hard to succeed. I know of two or three other firms like ours in the city of Chicago. Period. I think it’s just really hard to do.”

How did they decide a case like Sahan’s — which the lawyers said had them fully focused on one case for two weeks — fit into the firm’s plans?

“Well, it started out with (Sahan asking), ‘Can you help me settle this?’” Robson said.

“She didn’t tell us that there was a court case. So that’s how that started. And then we liked her so much that there was nothing I could do about it.”