A Q&A With Denise Conklin

Managing Attorney
Prairie State Legal Services

A practiced commercial litigator with more than 15 years of legal experience, Denise Conklin spent five years as a volunteer and part-time staff attorney with Prairie State Legal Services before assuming the position of managing attorney in the organization’s Peoria office in 2009. In this role, she oversees a small staff and network of volunteer attorneys who provide pro bono legal services to qualified low-income, disabled and senior clients living in Marshall, Peoria, Tazewell, Stark and west Woodford counties.

Describe the mission of Prairie State Legal Services. What services does the organization provide, and how does one qualify?
Prairie State Legal Services is a not-for-profit law firm that provides free civil legal services to the poor, elderly and people with disabilities in northern and central Illinois. Prairie State’s Peoria office is one of 11 offices of Prairie State. Prairie State is our community’s legal aid provider.

The mission of Prairie State is to provide—or coordinate the delivery of—high-quality legal services to low-income individuals, families and groups. The delivery of legal services is directed to protecting the client’s basic human needs, including physical safety, shelter and income. Prairie State never charges its clients attorneys’ fees. Rather, Prairie State provides its services as a result of grants and private donations. Prairie State is a United Way partner agency.

Prairie State provides legal assistance to low-income clients in civil cases only. As staffing and resources allow, the organization assists individuals and families in a wide variety of legal problems, including:

  • Family issues, such as domestic violence, divorce and guardianships;
  • Housing cases, including evictions, foreclosure actions, rent-to-own scams and nursing home discharge cases;
  • Public benefits matters, including Social Security benefits, unemployment compensation, veteran’s benefits, SNAP or LINK card benefits (also known as food stamps), Medicaid and home care services;
  • Issues affecting seniors (60 and over), such as elder abuse, financial exploitation of the elderly and powers of attorney;
  • Consumer protection and debt issues, such as fraud, creditor abuse, bankruptcy or garnishment.

Prairie State does not represent clients in criminal, traffic or personal injury cases. Individuals applying for Prairie State’s services must meet income and asset requirements set by Prairie State’s federal funders. Since Prairie State is a law firm, Prairie State is prohibited from representing any client if doing so would create a conflict of interest.

What territory do you cover, and where else are offices located?
Prairie State has 11 offices serving 36 counties throughout northern and central Illinois. The Peoria office serves the following counties: Marshall, Peoria, Stark, Tazewell and Woodford. In addition, the Peoria office supports services to Fulton, Henderson, Knox, McDonough and Warren counties. Prairie State’s remaining 10 offices are located in Bloomington, Joliet, Kankakee, Ottawa, Rockford, Rock Island, St. Charles, Waukegan, Wheaton and Woodstock. Prairie State’s administrative office is located in Rockford.

How is your organization funded, and how have funding levels been affected in recent years?
Prairie State provides critical civil legal services to low-income people in our community without charge as a result of financial support from individuals, businesses and various grants. The Peoria office receives local support from the Heart of Illinois United Way, Pekin United Way, the City of Peoria, and Central Illinois Agency on Aging. However, Prairie State receives more requests for services than current staffing and resources can provide. Prairie State utilizes pro bono attorneys in our community to expand services to clients who otherwise would not be served. Individuals interested in volunteering with Prairie State or in offering financial support should contact Prairie State’s Administrative Office at (815) 965-2134 or pslegal.org, or the Peoria office at (309) 674-9831 or dconklin@pslegal.org.

How many people staff the Peoria office?
The Peoria office is staffed by seven attorneys, one pro bono coordinator, one assistant pro bono coordinator, a medical/legal partnership coordinator, two secretaries, a paralegal and a VISTA volunteer.

About how many cases do you handle in a typical year? How do you decide which cases to accept?
The Peoria office handles more than 2,000 cases each year. After interviewing each client, the office determines whether to accept the case for representation. Many factors go into that decision, including the merits of the case, the availability and resources of the office, and to what extent the office’s involvement will positively impact the outcome of the case for the client.

What happens if you can’t handle someone’s case?
Unfortunately, due to inadequate resources, the Peoria office is not able to represent every eligible client who applies for services and has a meritorious case. When the office’s attorneys are unable to represent a client due to a lack of resources, the office’s pro bono coordinator attempts to locate an attorney in the community who is willing to take the case on a pro bono basis, meaning without charge to the client. If no pro bono attorney is available, the office attempts to refer the client to other resources, including the Self Help Center in the courthouses.

Do you work with other not-for-profit organizations in terms of referrals?
Yes. Prairie State is one resource within the network of social service providers in our community committed to assisting low-income residents break the cycle of poverty, abuse and violence, and move toward safety and self-sufficiency. Prairie State cannot achieve this goal alone, but rather works in coordinated effort with other social service providers to assist clients. Prairie State welcomes referrals from the community. Referrals can be sent to the Peoria office by phone at (309) 674-9831, fax at (309) 674-3802, or by sending an email to dconklin@pslegal.org.

How do you connect with local attorneys willing to do pro bono work?
Prairie State’s attorneys are actively involved in the local bar associations. The Peoria office’s pro bono coordinator and her assistant actively recruit pro bono attorneys from the local legal communities. Prairie State offers education and mentoring assistance regarding legal issues impacting the poor, and cases referred from the office. Any attorney interested in providing pro bono assistance to Prairie State is encouraged to contact the office’s pro bono coordinator, Sandra Crow, at (309) 674-9831 or scrow@pslegal.org.

What would be the local impact if your organization went away?
Prairie State provides a voice to the poor. Without Prairie State, the basic human needs of many low-income residents in our community would be silenced. If Prairie State went away, victims of domestic violence and elder abuse who could not afford an attorney likely would not be represented in their orders of protection, and would be required to face their abusers alone, if at all. Low-income families who are victims of illegal lockouts or housing discrimination likely would not be represented in advocating their rights for safe and affordable housing. Disabled persons who have been denied public benefits because their disability prevents them from successfully advocating for the benefits on their own would be powerless to prove their case. Prairie State is the only legal services provider in the 10 counties served by the Peoria office. Prairie State meets a critical need in the community that otherwise is not met.

What is your greatest challenge?
A lack of sufficient funding. Prairie State receives more requests for services than current staffing and resources can provide. With additional funding, Prairie State would continue to find efficient and effective ways to serve the greatest number of persons with the greatest positive impact for our clients and our community. iBi

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