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“Thirty-seven million Americans — more than 12 percent of the population — live in poverty. Lawyers can help them avoid unwarranted evictions, escape abusive relationships, retain custody of their children, obtain or preserve desperately needed benefits and services, challenge policies that discriminate against the poor and fight employment discrimination. This is vitally important work.”- Chicago Sun-Times, Letters to the Editor, September 19, 2008, Lawrence D. Wood, Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago
The phrase, “equal justice under the law,” that is engraved on the front of the United States Supreme Court building, applies to all types of underprivileged and disadvantaged groups needing legal assistance, not just those in poverty.
Equal justice is provided by both private bar attorneys as well as those working full time helping those who are less fortunate. Many of our nation’s lawyers feel duty-bound to commit themselves to serving the less fortunate through pro bono service and at the same time there is also a group who are passionate about and devoting their practice to being full-time public interest lawyers.
Peter Bibler is one of these passionate crusaders.
Peter is currently Staff Attorney for Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago’s (LAF) Home Ownership Preservation Project where he works through all stages of litigation for lower income and senior homeowners facing the imminent loss of their homes through foreclosure, many of whom are victims of predatory lending or deed theft.
LAF reports that mortgage fraud and related scams are on the rise, with low-income homeowners in the Chicago area increasingly in need of legal representation as the number of foreclosure filings has exceeded 40,000 in the past year.
I first learned of Peter and his work in an article announcing the five recipients of the 2008 Chicago Bar Foundation Sun-Times Public Interest Law Fellowship which awards $50,000 in loan repayment assistance to help them continue their careers in legal aid.
“Through The Chicago Bar Foundation Sun-Times Fellowship, we are able to support their work and make it more manageable for them to serve the people in our community who are in most critical need of the protections of our justice system.” said Bob Glaves, Executive Director of The Chicago Bar Foundation.
Peter Bibler received the 2008 Chicago Bar Foundation Sun-Times Public Interest Law Fellowship
As I read about Peter, I couldn’t help but wonder how, having just graduated law school in 2005, he could have already made such a positive impact on society and, more than that, I was curious about when and where his deep-seated passion came from for providing legal justice to the disadvantaged.
Did someone inspire him? Did something happen in his own life that drove him to be so committed to serving others in this way? When did he become so determined to devote his livelihood to helping vulnerable people who otherwise would be shut out of our justice system?
My intention here is to share Peter’s story with you as an example of how the passion for the law and serving others, whether through public interest or pro bono, can be successfully combined and how it can greatly affect lives – even within a small window of time.
Preparation and Inspiration
Q: What drew you to pursue law in Chicago?
Peter: I moved to Chicago in 2002 to attend law school at DePaul University. I was drawn to Chicago not only for its cultural, social and professional opportunities, but also the challenges it presents in terms of poverty and injustice. I knew that if I wanted to serve disadvantaged persons and communities traditionally underserved by our society and its laws, I’d have my hands full in this big city.
Q: What experiences during law school helped you prepare?
Peter: I knew that I wanted to be a public interest lawyer. All of my internships and much of my coursework during law school were designed to prepare me for this career. Prior to interning at LAF, I clerked at the Cabrini Green Legal Aid Clinic, where I worked to expunge criminal records or filed clemency petitions on behalf of ex-offenders, and I clerked at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. During my second year of law school, I participated in DePaul’s Community Development Clinic for a year, where I represented non-profit organizations that served low-income Chicago communities. I graduated from law school with a Certificate in Public Interest Law.
Q: How and when did your connection with Legal Assistance Foundation begin?
Peter: I volunteered at LAF in my last year of law school in 2005. I left to prepare for the Bar exam and then studied Spanish for several weeks in Guatemala. I returned to LAF to volunteer while applying for jobs. Soon, I was hired as a temporary employee (part-time paralegal, part-time lawyer) until I was hired as a full-time staff attorney in March 2006.
Q: What inspired you to devote yourself to helping the disadvantaged in this way?
Peter: I believe the turning point that inspired me to become a poverty lawyer occurred when I was a philosophy undergraduate student. In my last year, I helped create a program offering introductory humanities courses to prison inmates, residents in a drug rehabilitation center, and to low-income residents in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Inspired by Earl Shorris’ New American Blues, we sought to bring the humanities out of the classroom and to combat poverty through education. I continued to participate in the program after graduation: teaching in the community, where I better understood how, as Shorris describes, the poor live in a “surround of force” which often stymie a person’s effort to obtain some level of security.
For example, when a student did not appear for a couple of classes, I followed up and learned that her son was in a car accident, destroying the family’s sole source of transportation (at least at that time, Grand Rapids didn’t have a readily accessible public transit system). Both the son and car were uninsured, and my student was struggling with keeping her job while trying to manage her son’s medical bills. I found that my students were constantly distracted by life’s problems. I thought a law degree would best enable me to work on systemic issues, such as economic security and housing, i.e., basic infrastructures of peoples’ lives, as a means of empowering others.
Recognition Raises Awareness
Q: You’ve recently been recognized with awards and press which has put a spotlight on you. How can the recognition help your clients or other disadvantaged citizens?
Peter: It can to the extent it directs the spotlight on to the persons and communities I serve and the challenges they face; and in doing so, it raises awareness of injustice in our communities and generates support, financial or personal, for public interest firms, like LAF, whose sole focus is to fight that injustice and advocate for the underrepresented. It can help further by generating support for organizations like the Chicago Bar Foundation, which provides loan forgiveness fellowships for public interest lawyers who have eschewed more lucrative careers but still struggle repaying enormous student loans.
Q: Do you think the work you do is more challenging or more unique in Chicago than other cities around the U.S.?
Peter: Not necessarily. I think poverty law might present unique challenges as compared to other fields of law, say, commercial law. I cannot easily compare without the benefit of experience, but I do not necessarily think that it is different per se in Chicago than in Los Angeles or other metropolitan cities, except that each client in each community may present different emphases. Starker differences in terms of access to justice and the practice of poverty law are more apparent in rural areas where there are fewer resources.
Even though communities have different needs, families in all metropolitan cities across the U.S. benefit from attorneys doing pro bono work and the work of full time public interest lawyers.
Q: What is it about the disadvantaged citizens of Chicago that stirs a passion in you to help them?
Peter: I am driven to serve the disadvantaged in our community because they are too often deliberately ignored, or at the very least, treated with indifference. I am particularly enraged by the pervasive practice of fraud upon vulnerable homeowners who are lured into home repair contracts and the repairs are never made or are shoddily performed; those who are persuaded by a mortgage broker to refinance and are not properly informed of the unfavorable loan terms; and those who are deceived into thinking they are saving their home from foreclosure by entering into a loan transaction, when, in fact, they are transferring title to an investor for half the value of their home.
Q: What makes them eligible?
Peter: Our organization receives federal funding, so eligibility is governed by Legal Service Corporation (LSC) regulations. Generally, our clients earn no more than 150% of the federal poverty guideline. Under the Home Ownership Preservation Project (HOPP), which is funded separately, the specific program within LAF in which I work, we represent homeowners who earn a maximum of 80% of the area median income.
Q: What does the spectrum of diversity of your clients look like?
Peter: LAF’s clients represent a broad spectrum of diversity – all races and backgrounds; children, families, and seniors. What they have in common is having little to no income and a difficulty to access justice. In my personal practice through HOPP, I focus on representing homeowners in Chicago’s Westside neighborhoods and western suburbs.
Q: How do you handle the challenge of working with people who haven’t been exposed or who aren’t familiar with the legal process and their rights?
Peter: I actually don’t encounter much resistance from my clients. I seek to overcome any initial wariness by listening to my client and trying to understand his or her legal and non-legal goals. I take care to inform my clients of how the law categorizes and treats the issues they may present and the legal process within which we must work so that they can have a more active role. I strive to engage in a client-centered practice, i.e., an approach to law driven by my client’s goals, instead of a traditional lawyer-centered approach where I diagnose a legal problem and impose a specific legal solution. Poverty law requires a holistic approach. I cannot focus simply on a pending foreclosure case. I must also, for example, figure out how to increase a family’s income, which may involve representation (or advice and a referral) in obtaining public benefits, Social Security, food stamps, or tax and utility assistance.
Peter’s recognition for his public interest work by the Chicago Bar Foundation not only shows the support of this work throughout the law community, but it shines a light on how the legal community infiltrates into society, helping those who can’t help themselves.
Lawyers, regardless of what side they are on, who are either working full time in public interest or if they do pro bono work, are all impacting lives and communities for the better and not just for the recognition.