‘Chicago Advocate Legal’ Reimagines Family and Housing Law to Bridge the Justice Gap
Chlece Neal’s client was a 14-year-old father seeking a shared custody agreement with his infant’s 16-year-old mother. The 8th grader wasn’t eligible for assistance from Legal Aid because his family’s annual income exceeded 125% of the federal poverty line, about $30k a year for a family of four. However, traditional law firms start billing at $250 to $300 an hour, many times what he could afford.
He wasn’t alone. Each year millions face challenges financing legal services. Unlike the criminal justice system, people aren’t entitled to representation in US civil courts, even though the consequences are often equally dire — losing lifesaving medical care, a home, or access to children. Short of relatively scarce pro bono opportunities, America’s civil justice system is effectively inaccessible for individuals and families earning too much to qualify for Legal Aid but not enough to afford traditional representation to navigate the complex family and housing law court systems. That’s many families earning between $20k and $80k or more a year in the US. This is the justice gap.
A slew of legal incubators, organizations for new lawyers to share resources and ideas, have sprung up across the United States aimed at arming lawyers with the skills needed to expand access to lower-income clients. Unfortunately, many of these incubators have struggled to launch a sustainable model.
Enter Chicago Advocate Legal (CAL), the nonprofit law firm Neal co-founded in 2016 with Brian Gilbert. CAL has pioneered a new financial, social, and operational model to serve this gap population in Cook County, America’s second largest county at more than 5 million residents. Over the course of multiple interviews, Neal and Gilbert discussed their inspiration for starting CAL, as well as some of the challenges they’ve faced in realizing their mission.
At traditional law firms, lawyers’ financial incentives can be misaligned with their clients’ because the firm makes more money the more tedious the case becomes. All meetings, motions, phone calls, and courtroom visits are hours billable to the client. This is especially parasitic in family and housing law where, according to Neal, it’s rarely in someone’s best interest to go to trial. “People usually just want their problem solved as quickly and painlessly as possible,” she notes.
In that sense, CAL’s innovation begins with a financial model committed to delivering equitable outcomes. CAL charges a one-time lump sum followed by a flat monthly fee based on the client’s household size and annual income. CAL’s typical client — someone making about $27k a year with one dependent — pays $1,000 up front (payable in installments) followed by $100 per month thereafter. This homegrown payment structure scales up to a $2,000 lump sum and $350 a month after that for clients making $100k a year.
“People want to pay if they can,” Neal insists. “You just have to charge them something fair.”
When asked to justify how even a $1,000 outlay is a fair ask for a family making $27k a year — in addition to $100 monthly payments over 18 to 24 months, the average duration of one of CAL’s cases — Neal explains that if money is a barrier then they will negotiate a number the client can afford, find another firm that will take the case, or accept the case pro bono. They know navigating the legal system without representation is impossible for many, so they make a way to get people the services they need.
Over the past five years, this model has successfully expanded access to hundreds of families who would not have otherwise been able to afford representation.
Is the model sustainable long-term? So far it certainly looks that way. With just a handful of attorneys and paralegals on staff, all of CAL’s monthly expenses are narrowly covered by client fees. Then why be a not-for-profit? Three reasons: taxes, grants, and trust.
CAL is incorporated as a 501(c)(3), meaning that it’s exempt from paying federal income tax. Because of its sliding scale pricing, the firm was already eligible for this tax break so 501(c)(3) status made financial sense from the beginning.
Operating as a nonprofit also makes CAL eligible for grants and low-interest loans (totaling in the single-digit thousands annually). Because this funding does not cover CAL’s core operating expenses like rent or payroll, it enables CAL — unlike Legal Aid — to prioritize all potential clients equitably, instead of having to turn people away if donors haven’t earmarked funds for a particular legal issue.
Instead, CAL uses grant money to grow and expand their offerings. A $5,000 grant enabled them to launch their Preventative Law Initiative, an ambitious initiative that operates legal education programs at high schools, colleges, and community and social service organizations in Cook County teaching people how to prevent legal issues and avoid the legal system entirely.
Finally, incorporating as a 501(c)(3) reassures CAL’s clients that the firm is actually working in their best interest. Building this trust is an essential part of their business model because people generally need family and housing law services when they’re at their lowest — when they have few other options and are staring down the face of a system ill-suited to resolve their issues. Neal says the system is poorly equipped to resolve their issue “because the law is very black and white. Family law is not adaptive. People have mental health issues the court is not equipped to handle. They’re usually already caught up in other areas of the justice system — immigration or criminal, most likely. And sometimes it’s the case that there’s no legal question being asked.” Much of the work CAL ends up doing is mediation — work that social workers could (and perhaps should) be doing outside of a courtroom.
That’s also where she feels support organizations must preemptively put in the work to help people avoid legal problems. Better education around sex or interpersonal skills, Neal believes, would prevent many of the cases she sees. “People should be taught to learn how to identify when getting into a relationship would be dangerous to them,” she adds. “They need health treatment and jobs, especially teens coming from poor families.”
CAL’s clients are about a third black, a third Hispanic, and a third white, similar to the demographic breakdown of Chicago. Most are between the ages of 21 and 36, work full-time, and don’t have more than a high school education. From experience, Neal expects to see two thirds of them in need of representation again within a few years.
Because it’s a place of last resort when Legal Aid has turned people away, CAL has more demand than it can meet. Each lawyer juggles scores of cases. Just the firm’s family law caseload alone has almost doubled since the beginning of the Covid crisis.
Neal and Gilbert envision expanding their practice with more attorneys. The problem is that they’ve struggled to hire them. CAL generally pays over $20k more than similar positions in Legal Aid, with salaries up to $60,000. But due to the costs, CAL no longer offers benefits, including healthcare. Now they’re experimenting with part-time attorneys and flexible compensation packages. Still, the list of soft skills CAL lawyers need to be successful is long. They must have extreme patience, empathy, and compassion — traits more often associated with social workers than lawyers — on top of the entrepreneurial initiative to independently manage the comprehensive legal, social, and financial success of their cases start to finish. And they must be willing to forgo the six figure compensation packages many need to pay off law school debts, which average more than $140k.
There are so many qualifications because CAL provides a full-service support system. If clients need social services, mental health services, healthcare, housing, immigration help, or anything else, CAL’s lawyers or social work students don’t just hand people a phone number. They also reach out with them. They stay on the line to ensure their clients receive the services they need. It’s an oft-thankless job that recently drove a frustrated attorney to resign. He didn’t understand why or how he should be someone’s therapist — talk them down from an emotional ledge — before he could address their legal issue. “Many of our clients call in tears,” Neal says. “Some threaten, yell, curse, call you names. It’s tough. That’s the job.”
It’s just one of hers. She also supervises CAL’s class of law and social work students and interns, works towards her PhD in social work, teaches Introduction to the Study of Law and Legal Systems to first-year law students, recently finished teaching Professional Identity Development — a course aimed at getting first-year law students to understand their biases and how race plays a role in the legal profession — is a research assistant working on the labor trafficking of children, and is a research assistant on an initiative to outlaw (in Illinois) the loophole in the 13th amendment that allows the state to work incarcerated people for pennies. And she’s nine months pregnant.
A 30-something black woman living in Chicago’s South Side who experienced homelessness first-hand, Neal knows how to meet people where they’re at without judgement. “I let them tell their story,” she recounts from lessons learned in part from her time working in Legal Aid before founding CAL. “A lot of people just want someone to listen to them and validate their experience. If you do this then people are more likely to trust you because of all the various systems that haven’t treated them with respect. Then I just be honest with them. I let them know that I can’t promise a specific outcome but I’ve seen it all, and their problem probably isn’t as bad as they think. I explain the entire process so people know what’s going to happen next.”
It’s all part of her mission, now CAL’s mission, to change the system that proliferates the justice gap. This mission started with creating a firm where the well-being of individuals and the community is prioritized over financial profit; where the board is comprised of employees and previous employees, including interns; where they turn down cases if the client can afford traditional legal services; where they seek to educate people to avoid the court system altogether; and where they will not accept increasing fees in a way that might alienate lower-income people as an acceptable solution for growing the firm.
Gilbert thinks one path to expanding their impact might be to automate the routine but tedious face-to-computer work lawyers must repeat for each case. Or, in sharing the physical space and legal infrastructure fixed costs with like-minded firms similarly trying to grow under tight budget constraints. Covid-19 has forced much of their work, even court visits, online. If this work remains virtual after Covid then CAL will consider accepting some of the many requests for representation they receive from people outside of Cook County. That will require more lawyers or, ideally, new partner law firms with similar operating models.
That’s CAL’s long-term goal — to expand their reach and inspire other lawyers to follow in their footsteps innovating in the legal space to help people.
While attorneys like Neal and Gilbert work to change the systems and structures that funnel people into a legal institution designed to deny them access, CAL shows that bridging the justice gap need not be at odds with running a business or offering services at a fair price lower-income Americans can afford. Without tough, persistent, and empathetic founders like Neal and Gilbert, it’s unclear how feasible it will be for other lawyers to replicate CAL’s progress. However, CAL at least serves as a role model when it comes to bringing disruptive, good innovation to family and housing law — the kind of innovation that prioritizes the health, safety, and success of people, families, and their communities over the bottom line.
Edited by Jimmy Nugent and Kian Vésteinsson.
Disclaimer: Don McKinnon is Chlece Neal’s cousin.