From packing school supplies and clothes for kids in need to backing Olympic athletes and high school students, Chicago-area lawyers find ways to give back in meaningful ways.
Clifford Law Offices founding partner Robert A. Clifford, a prominent donor to many causes around Chicago’s civics, arts and legal circles, says philanthropy can come in several different valuable forms that distill down to “time, talent or treasure.”
Every firm, person or organization delivers a different mix of availability, skills and dollars that combine to make a difference for nonprofit partners. And in the past year, the needs of charities — and the philanthropy by local lawyers — adjusted for the times.
Here’s a look at what philanthropy means to several local attorneys and law firms, and how the pandemic has changed purposes and perspectives.
‘A perfect storm of frustration’
Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s 17 offices all have local charitable causes and support shared firmwide service and fundraising projects.
“It’s a priority for all of us to give back to our communities,” said partner Kristine Argentine, the community service co-chair at Seyfarth’s Chicago headquarters. “The charities we support and efforts supported within our leadership help us feel more connected to our communities, more connected to each other.”
Kimberly McClain, manager of Seyfarth’s pro bono and philanthropy department, said each office has room to determine its own charitable causes.
“In addition to giving to charities that our employees are involved in, we also make it a priority to give to legal aid agencies,” McClain said. “(This is) definitely a priority of our charitable giving programs. About 40% of our annual budget goes to support legal aid organizations.”
Among the firm's marquee efforts is Day of Service, launched in 2017. The firm invites all 500-plus Chicago-based employees to participate, McClain said.
“The service project benefits Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit organization that provides low-income and homeless children with the essential items they need to thrive,” McClain said. “Attorneys and staff from the office showed overwhelming support for the Day of Service, and it has since become a recurring fixture on the Chicago office calendar.”
Cradles to Crayons operates a Northwest Side warehouse it calls the “Giving Factory,” where volunteers sort through donations, organize inventory and assemble customized care packages for children.
At the Giving Factory, groups leave each visit with statistics of the day’s efforts put in human terms. The impact has “been remarkable,” McClain said.
“More than 3,900 children have received the critical items they need to thrive, and Cradles to Crayons has received $40,955 in donations by individuals and Seyfarth’s charitable foundation. In addition, we assembled 4,293 backpacks and school supply refill kits,” McClain said of the years from 2017 to 2019. “We created 1,516 handwritten well-wish cards. In the office, we filled 28 large donation crates with new and gently used clothing and toys.”
The firm initially struggled to find ways to safely provide donations in the face of a pandemic.
“So many people wanted to help but it was hard to find safe ways because of COVID concerns,” McClain said. “Our community partners were struggling themselves. It was a perfect storm of frustration. We had to completely realign. But, what I am most proud of … while we couldn’t do most of what we normally would do, I am proud we were able to jump in and help Cradles to Crayons. We helped them to pilot a new system to engage volunteers to keep their programs going, to reach all the people that need their help.”
The firm participated in a Cradles to Crayons program during the holidays called “kid pack.”
Seyfarth volunteers, given details of each child’s age and gender, assembled packages with boots, mittens, winter coats and toys. The items then got sent to the Cradles to Crayons facility.
She said the firm adapted to the crisis and honored all of their charitable commitments budgeted for before the pandemic hit.
A ‘trickle-down’ culture of giving back
Lawyers at Corboy & Demetrio support a long list of charities in and around Chicago in many different areas.
Acts of charity “trickle down from the top,” said communications director Helen Lucaitis, in that the founders set an example for everyone to follow. “Our firm’s culture is to serve our community, especially those in need, and oftentimes that is at-risk youth.”
Thomas A. Demetrio, one of the founding partners, remains active in several nonprofits. Among them is Lawyers Lend-A-Hand to Youth, which started as an initiative of the Chicago Bar Association when Demetrio served as president in 1992-93. Land-A-Hand considers itself to be Demetrio’s “brainchild.”
“Tom has instilled in all of us a sense of duty,” Lucaitis said.
Rita Planera, the firm’s legal administrator, has served on the Lend-A-Hand board on and off ever since its early days. She said Demetrio’s “dream” was to bring the law community together and help mentor low-income at-risk youth. The vision was to focus on smaller grassroots programs in struggling neighborhoods that lacked funding of larger organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Since 1995, Lend-A-Hand has awarded over $1.7 million in grants and mentored tens of thousands of Chicago area youth, with the money and service hours from lawyers across the city.
“There are young children in our at-risk communities that don’t see anything beyond the four walls or the quadrant of their neighborhood,” Planera said. “What we wanted to do is find a way to bring them out of the world they were in and see there is something bigger out there.”
Today, Demetrio funds an annual award given through Lend-A-Hand to partner organizations. One of those organizations is the Lawndale AMACHI Mentoring Program, or LAMP.
Ameia Johnson, 18, lives in North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side and started getting mentorship through LAMP at age 15, funded through the Demetrio award.
In addition to mentoring, LAMP provides laptops for students and facilitates trips to theaters and museums. The nonprofit has helped students find jobs and join community-service opportunities during COVID-19.
Johnson, a student at UIC College Prep, said the program made a difference for her and will help her make a difference for others.
“It’s helped me because I get good grades (now),” she said.” (The mentors) help us with what we don’t know … with schoolwork, reading and writing, how to get a job and how to act responsibly in real-world situations.”
Johnson said she’s inspired to be a mentor herself one day. She wants to use her own experience to teach others they can grow beyond their own neighborhood.
“My life was a struggle,” Johnson said. “Ever since I came to LAMP, they changed me around. I was so shy, used to cover my face. I didn’t like to talk. But as I kept going through the program they gave me comfort. I started speaking more, showing my face, smiling, no attitude. Back then I had a nasty attitude. This program made me who I am.”
Lawyers Lend-A-Hand offers a tutoring program that in normal times brings schoolchildren from their neighborhoods to the Chicago Bar Association’s Loop headquarters. There, lawyers sit and engage with them.
Lend-A-Hand volunteer lawyers continue to mentor students remotely. Kathy McCabe, Lend-A-Hand’s director, said enrollment dipped 15% during the pandemic because some students couldn’t transition to virtual tutoring.
But the organization is finding a surge in interest from the legal community. “In the meantime, we added a second school partner in January 2021 because we had so many attorneys sign up to be tutors this year,” McCabe said.
Another firmwide philanthropic tradition at Corboy & Demetrio is support for Misericordia, a North Side facility serving people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“For 25 years, our staff has volunteered monthly at brunches in the Greenhouse Restaurant, doing everything from cooking to serving to cleanup,” Lucaitis said. “Our partners have provided free legal services, and for 30 years, we’ve taken part in Candy Days,”
During Candy Days, attorneys at the firm hawk bags of Jelly Belly beans outside their Dearborn Street office to passersby, raising money for Misericordia.
Corboy & Demetrio chief financial officer Marcy Twardak co-hosts annual holiday and spring shopping fundraisers for the organization. In 2020, the holiday shopping event went virtual.
“Helping Misericordia is in our firm’s DNA,” Lucaitis said.
Philip Harnet Corboy Jr., a partner at Corboy and Demetrio, turned a chance meeting at a party into a commitment as a board member for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation.
In 2014, Corboy met Paralympian swimmer Jessica Long at a party. Long was born in a Siberian orphanage with a disease that required her legs to be amputated. She was adopted by a family in Maryland who encouraged her goal of being a champion athlete for Team USA.
After hearing Long’s story, Corboy said he looked at his wife and said “we have to get involved.”
Corboy, who devotes his own personal funds and time to the cause, said it’s not only about winning medals, but developing impressive young athletes into thriving adults.
He described attending the 2016 Games and watching the athletes, who often finance their own way. “This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever had the wonderful experience to be part of,” Corboy said. “They are genuinely great kids, … and they all want to do what is best for them and their families.”
The foundation steps in to provide the financial muscle behind the physical muscle. “The United States is the only country in the world that does not give the athletes a nickel,” Corboy said. “We give to the best and the brightest athletes, it adds a lot. We have to work hard especially in the last two years with the economy and COVID.”
“It was more difficult to raise money,” Corboy said of the past year. “We had to work twice as hard to do it, but we met our goal of raising $125 million — we raised $126 million.”
The committee also helps the athletes when they return home from the games in their post-Olympic lives.
“For most athletes who make it, it is one and done, and as a result they have to put off most plans for what they are going to be doing … for the rest of their lives,” Corboy said.
Corboy said he hears stories of athletes headed home after the games asking each other “What are you going to do now?”
“They had never really been trained or educated on what to do next,” Corboy said. “On that plane ride home, they start to worry about it,” he said.
The committee helps connect the athletes to resources, jobs, and graduate schools.
‘Some quiet space’
Bob Clifford said he and his wife, Joan, are passionate about arts and theater in Chicago, and have watched with concern as the pandemic shut down stages for the past year.
“We enjoy the intellectual side … it brings smiles to our faces, it’s comforting, stimulating, and when you spend your life yelling at lawyers all day, you look for some quiet space,” Clifford said.
Clifford backs causes within the arts world, like Lawyers for the Creative Arts.
The theater world is “taking a hit” after a year without crowds in seats, he said. But he praised the creative ways the theater community is pulling together to raise funds until the curtains can open again.
In a typical year, the Cliffords would organize opulent in-person fundraisers each May. This year, a virtual gala is planned in its place, with food and wine delivered to guests’ homes and entertainment streamed online.
In 2020, Clifford Law started its Food and Shelter Project, donating thousands of dollars to send catered meals from local restaurants to homeless shelters. Facilities including Sarah’s Circle, Lincoln Park Community Shelter and the Salvation Army got 4,000 meals from places such as Archie’s Café, La Briola, Sauce and Bread Kitchen and Wildberry Café.
Clifford, along with his daughter Erin, also an attorney at his firm, serve as trustees for Window to the World Communications, the parent nonprofit of WTTW-TV. Clifford purchased the closed-captioning equipment for the public television station and regularly answers phones during telethons.
“I just love public broadcasting and what it does for the community, bringing cultural enhancement to the community,” Clifford said. “No one is better locally, in terms of bringing to the community the cultural arts and international news and local news as WTTW.”
Clifford believes WTTW is “holding its own” financially during the pandemic, but he acknowledges that every nonprofit has had different experiences.
Lawyers also on the receiving end
Deane B. Brown, a shareholder at Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym Ltd. and immediate past president of the Illinois Bar Foundation, says the IBF’s mission is powerful to her because it addresses challenges on both ends of the legal service model: “to ensure meaningful access to the justice system, especially for those with limited means, and to support attorneys and their families during times of crisis,” she explained.
“I have been very fortunate in my legal career and have always stressed the importance of giving back to others both inside and outside of the legal community, which the IBF does beautifully,” Brown said.
In June 2020, the IBF created the COVID-19 Lawyers Care Relief Fund, an extension of its Warren Lupel Lawyers Care Fund, and raised more than $130,000 that went to 60 Illinois lawyers facing financial or health crises.
While many people easily envision successful big-city law firms like those in Chicago or New York, there are many smaller law firms, especially sole practitioners in rural areas, who are struggling due to the pandemic and the shutdown of the courts, explained IBF executive director Stacey Meehan explained.
The smaller firms’ troubles are amplified because their clientele is typically low-income, she said.
“It will be a continuing challenge,” Meehan said. “As courts open up, it will probably change significantly in a positive way for the legal system in general. We have to look at that in marketing and outreach efforts to make sure people know funds like this exist.”
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