Q&A with Beth Jensen, Public Interest Law Initiative

You may know her as a Peoria City Councilwoman, but Beth Jensen serves another organization as well: the Public Interest Law Initiative. Since joining PILI as program director one year ago, she has led its efforts to expand pro bono programs for the poor and underrepresented across Illinois. Prior to this role, she served as Of Counsel at Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen in Peoria. She has also been a law clerk to Justice Daniel L. Schmidt of the Third District Appellate Court of Illinois, assistant corporate counsel for the City of Peoria, and staff attorney at Prairie State Legal Services.

As a student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law in the early nineties, Jensen received a grant from PILI, which allowed her to intern at Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic. “It’s nice to come full circle,” she says, “and be back working full-time to help low-income and underrepresented people access justice.” iBi sat down with Jensen to learn more about the organization as it expands its downstate presence.

What is PILI, and what is its mission?
PILI is a 40-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating a lifelong commitment to public interest law and pro bono service within the Illinois legal community. Through its pro bono initiative and internship and fellowship programs, PILI works to expand the availability of legal services for people, families and communities in need.

Is the organization specific to Illinois? Are there similar organizations in other states?
Yes, PILI is Illinois-specific. There are similar organizations, such as One Justice in California, that focus on expanding and enhancing legal pro bono programs and services. PILI is unique in that, in addition to its pro bono program, it provides grants and fellowships to law students and recent graduates to work for public interest law and legal services programs throughout the state.

How does PILI work with similar-minded organizations like Prairie State Legal Services?
PILI works with legal service providers such as Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS) to assist and enhance the legal services they provide to low-income individuals. For example, PILI has partnered with PSLS and the Land Of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation (LOL) to develop downstate pro bono committees in seven judicial circuits, including the Tenth Circuit, which serves Peoria. PILI and these committees have developed different pro bono opportunities throughout the state, such as help desks at courthouses, legal advice clinics and expungement summits. Local attorneys volunteer in these programs to meet with low-income clients and provide legal advice and representation, which supplements the services that PSLS and LOL provide.

Unfortunately, the need for legal representation for the poor and underrepresented is so high, PSLS, LOL and all of the other legal service organizations in Illinois can’t serve all of those who are in need due to funding, resources and other issues. Thus, PILI works to supplement and assist legal service organizations throughout the state by recruiting and training private attorneys and law students to take pro bono cases and to volunteer at help desks, advice clinics and expungement summits.

How did you become involved?
I actually was a PILI grant recipient in law school 25 years ago. The PILI grant allowed me to work at Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic (CGLA) during the summer between my first and second year of law school. After I finished my summer internship, CGLA hired me, and I worked there part-time for my remaining two years of law school and full-time in the summers.

Describe your role and responsibilities with the organization.
I am the program director in charge of statewide pro bono. I oversee all of our pro bono programs, including the Pro Bono Initiative and Judicial Circuit pro bono committees. As the first downstate employee, I am working to enhance and expand our pro bono programs throughout the state. As I mentioned, we currently have seven downstate Judicial Circuit pro bono committees, which are made up of local attorneys, judges and representatives from local legal services organizations such as PSLS.

In this role, I serve as the staff person to the committees. I develop, organize and staff pro bono programs such as courthouse help desks, legal advice clinics and expungement summits. I develop and put together continuing legal education training in areas of the law where pro bono attorneys are needed. I recruit attorneys to do pro bono work, and I work with corporations such as State Farm, Caterpillar and Deere & Company to recruit attorneys for pro bono work and to enhance and expand their pro bono programs.

Through our Pro Bono Initiative, I am responsible for putting together a forum and four roundtable discussions in which pro bono leaders from law firms, law schools and corporations meet to discuss and develop strategies for enhancing, expanding and developing pro bono programs throughout the state.

How is PILI’s downstate presence expanding?
We now have seven downstate Judicial Circuit pro bono committees that focus on developing, expanding and enhancing pro bono programs downstate. In January, I opened our first downstate office, and I am the first downstate employee with PILI.

Last year we started one new Judicial Circuit pro bono committee, and we plan to start another this year. We also have expanded our internships and fellowships to downstate organizations and have placed more law students and graduates in downstate organizations than ever before. The board recently increased the amount and number of grants, which will include an increase in the number of interns and fellows placed in downstate organizations.

What are some examples of cases in which PILI’s assistance was utilized?
Last year, with me as a downstate representative, PILI was able to assist Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic in co-sponsoring and organizing expungement summits in Peoria, Champaign and Bloomington. These summits have served 200 to 400 clients and involved more than 40 volunteer attorneys, paralegals and law students at each summit. Through these summits, we have been able to reach a large number of people who needed legal services, engage a large number of legal professionals who had never volunteered to do pro bono before, work with corporations like Caterpillar and State Farm to expand pro bono services, and train hundreds of attorneys in areas of law in which pro bono services are needed. iBi

Subscribe to Peoria Magazines

Add new comment