SRC's Bob Michalak and the CDEL Offer Pro Bono Help to Elderly and Disabled

CDEL helps elderly and disabled through volunteers

By Jerry Crimmins
Law Bulletin staff writer

With a tiny staff and a shoestring budget, the Center for Disability and Elder Law gives pro bono legal help to hundreds of needy people each year through an unusual model.

Except for its three staff attorneys, CDEL lawyers and paralegals are all volunteers.

In this way, according to CDEL board member Thomas A. Demetrio of Corboy & Demetrio P.C., CDEL provides more than $2 million in legal services annually.

In 2009, this meant services worth $2,264,525, according to its last audit, to more than 2,500 people.

CDEL serves the needs of low-income seniors and persons with disabilities through a network of more than 1,000 volunteer attorneys, said board president Erin McCloskey Maus of Baker & McKenzie LLP.

"If you had asked me 28 years ago when we were first organized what we wanted to do, and said to me, 'Here's what you're going to be doing 28 years down the road,' I would not have believed it," said one of CDEL's founders Robert A. Michalak of Schuyler, Roche & Crisham P.C.

Executive Director Michael T. Roth said CDEL helps both the disabled and low-income elderly to draw up wills and advance directives; it offers help in landlord-tenant disputes, and defense in debt collections.

CDEL also offers help in consumer fraud cases with financial elder abuse cases, uncontested divorces and special education matters for disabled children. Maus said CDEL arranges guardianships for seniors and disabled who are becoming incapacitated.

CDEL also reaches out to hundreds of seniors who are in danger of losing their homes because they can't afford their property taxes, Roth said.

In cooperation with Katten, Muchin, Rosenman LLP, Navigant Consulting and the Cook County Assessor's Office, CDEL volunteers contact and advise seniors about their legal remedies in an effort to save their homes.

CDEL's "flagship program," Maus said, is its Senior Center Initiative.

In that program, volunteer attorneys and CDEL staff go to senior citizens' centers across the Chicago area to prepare powers of attorney for health care and for property and living wills for needy people.

Both Roth and Maus said this is one of the best ways for new volunteer lawyers and paralegals to get involved and to provide valuable and immediate service to the elderly.

For lawyers who want to do pro bono, "it's a unique opportunity compared to other pro bono services out there," Maus said.

In one afternoon, lawyer-volunteers "are able to serve a large number of senior in low-income senior centers," and the clients "walk away with these executed documents.

"And that can be very powerful," Maus said. "It is much more complicated for seniors to navigate these legal needs by themselves."

CDEL works together with law firms and their clients in corporate law departments in these Senior Center Initiatives.

CDEL says it provides free training for the volunteer lawyers, arranges the senior center events and supervises.

CDEL organizes all these activities currently with its tiny, full-time staff of three lawyers. They include Roth, Thomas C. Wendt as chief legal officer and M. Catherine Taylor as associate director. Plus CDEL has one part-time paralegal, Kimberly Hellmuth.

Its shoestring budget this year, Roth said, is $285,000.

"Like every legal services organization," Maus said, "CDEL has suffered from the economic downturn. Across the state of Illinois, support of legal services agencies has dipped."

She added that "law firms and corporations that have been our supporters have continued to support CDEL despite the economic downturn."

It's financial challenges today mirror in some ways the struggle to get the organization off the ground in the early 1980s.

The organization grew out of an idea from the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association.

Patricia S. Smart, a trademark and copyright lawyer and now name partner of Smart & Bostjancich, was 27 then and chairwoman of the YLS committee on legal services for the disabled.

"At that time, the disability movement was fairly new," Smart said. After taking a survey of unmet needs, her YLS committee decided to found a clinic "to provide pro bono legal services for people who met low income requirements and were disabled."

The chairman of the first board of what was then called the CBA Legal Clinic for the Disabled was James W. Collins of Boodell, Sears, Sugrue, Giambalvo & Crowley.

Collins brought in his neighbor and YLS member Michalak as a founding director because he is a certified public accountant as well as a lawyer, Michalak said.

Stories from the Daily Law Bulletin provided by Smart about the committee's plans in 1982 and 1983 show that it's initial goal was to raise $70,000 to $75,000 to launch the clinic.

But it took Smart, Michalak, Collins and other founders until March 1984 to raise $56,000, Michalak said. The clinic was launched on that.

Dr. Henry B. Betts of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago back then provided free office space, which was a big factor in getting the organization going, Michalak noted.

Today it is at 79 W. Monroe St.

The group started as mostly volunteer lawyers, and continues that way and is always recruiting.

In 2002, in response to a number of requests, Michalak said, the organization expanded its scope to serve the legal needs also of low income elderly people and changed its name to Center for Disability and Elder Law.

In recognition of its work, Chicago Cause, a collaboration of three Chicago-based companies, recently chose CDEL to receive $24,000 worth of free Web design, video production services and public relations consulting.

Chicago Cause said it chose CDEL out of 70 different organizations that applied because "CDEL best matched our criteria in terms of need, impact on the community, and ability to maintain the programs we execute to benefit the organization long term."

CDEL's Young Professional Board will hold its fall fundraiser to raise critical funds to advance the organization's mission of providing free legal services to low income elderly and individuals with disabilities. It will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at Cactus Bar & Grill, 404 S. Well St. For information, visit the website at

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