By Josh Taylor
Smokeball’s mission statement is to “help small law firms be successful businesses so that they can better serve our communities.” With this mission statement in mind, Smokeball sets out each quarter to assess how its actions are trickling down to our communities. One of the most compelling pieces of Smokeball’s quest to execute this mission is its work with legal non-profits. Smokeball provides support, both financial and through software, to several Chicago-area non-profits focused on access to justice and bridging the legal services gap.
One of the legal non-profits that utilizes Smokeball is Chicago Advocate Legal (CAL). This not-for-profit law firm focuses on helping clients with family law matters, and it specifically serves a population that may not qualify for free legal aid, but certainly cannot afford to pay full price for family law services. The non-profit is the creation of two graduates of the Justice Entrepreneurship Project in Chicago (another legal non-profit supported by Smokeball), Chlece Neal and Brian Gilbert. We recently had the chance to speak with Chlece Neal about what CAL is, what it means to the community, and how Smokeball has helped along the way.
“Brian and I were both with JEP,” she recalled about the origins of CAL. She and Brian had separate firms during the JEP incubator program, but both found they were focusing on the lower half of the demographic most JEP colleagues were serving. “The way we marketed and the people who were attracted to what we were doing were typically those who are eligible for Legal Aid, but unfortunately, aren’t able to get those services due to Legal Aid’s lack of resources. We do charge, but that becomes difficult when you’re working with a population that doesn’t have a whole lot to work with. So, when we realized how much we were charging compared to our peers at JEP, we thought maybe we should be a non-profit.”
The goal for Chlece and Brian wasn’t the same as a typical for-profit law firm, no matter how reasonable their prices or who they tried to serve: “Our goal isn’t making a profit as much as it is to change how the court system addresses individuals and cases in this demographic and to provide affordable legal services.” For Chlece and Brian, making a livable wage through their firm was not a priority – “That is, hopefully, something that we’ll succeed in doing in the future,” Chlece laughed.
And so, CAL was born. Along with the hard sometimes thankless work it does for the community, it differentiates itself in other ways. “We are probably the only ones doing flat fees, particularly for family law, because [other legal non-profits] still consider it hard to do flat fees. But what we do is do an upfront fee based on income and household size. Then we do a monthly fee. And that monthly fee, as long as they stay current, stops no matter what once their case is closed.”
It’s obvious from talking with Chlece that CAL is a family itself helping families through the legal system. “We have two attorneys here full-time, myself and Brian, and another part-time attorney who’s been working with us for, golly, maybe a year and a half, two years. And then, Colin, he’s our paralegal. He’s actually been with Brian since the JEP days.” CAL is proud of the impact it’s had on community and low-income legal work over the years: “Generally speaking, we like to hire new attorneys. They get some skills working here, and then they have plans to go on to something else. We had an attorney go on to the Public Defender’s office. And we have another attorney who’s actually at JEP now.” CAL also prides itself in providing experience for younger legal and social work professionals through various internships and externships for school credit.
For a successful legal non-profit, the mission can always change and adjust. Chlece broke the news that such a thing is currently happening with CAL. “We’re kind of changing our mission! Our mission before was to provide low cost legal services to people. Now, our goal is more of strengthening families and providing those same services, but earlier on in people’s lives to keep them out of court. We have a whole preventative law initiative now, which has really become the bigger focus of our firm. We go out, and we do clinics. These clinics aren’t really ‘know your rights’ but more of giving people a snapshot of the court process.”
No matter its purpose or mission, Smokeball is able to help Chlece and her team at CAL provide legal services and preventative information all around the Chicago area. “I like the automation. That’s my biggest thing. I think it makes writing documents significantly easier and faster,” she outlined, referring to Smokeball’s unmatched document automation due to its seamless integration with Microsoft Word. In the legal non-profit world, “it doesn’t help us to spend 50 hours on a document when it should only take 30 minutes.” Smokeball has also helped CAL with the intricacies of scheduling and the vast sea of emails on various files: “I like scheduling. I like having a very detailed schedule, so I like that aspect of it. I like being able to attach documents and automatically email them to the client. And it saves every single email! I don’t know how many times I’ve found it helpful to go into a client’s file and see all the emails I’ve sent in the past, there, saved, ready to go.”
And Chlece should know. Besides being an extremely busy lawyer and clinical instructor at Loyola University, she holds a Master’s in Computer Science. Technology competence is important for CAL and for all smaller firms especially today, but there’s often a learning curve with some of the non-profit’s clients. “It’s, you know, part of the process of helping the community more. So, we have set up a number of email accounts and done stuff like that. It’s good,” she described about how tech competence trickles through to the entire community including clients.
Smokeball is thrilled to continue to support non-profits providing legal services to communities in need. We congratulate Chlece for her great work through CAL, and thank her for outlining her team’s mission and how Smokeball helps her and the organization each day.