Judith Leesley always wanted to go to law school but when she graduated from college, one thing led to another and it didn't happen. She lived overseas for awhile, raised five children and stood by her husband through a serious illness before deciding to follow her dream.
She started law school at Northern Illinois University just a few months after her husband died and passed the bar when she was 50 years old. Now Leesley, of Barrington, is the legal services director with Elgin-based Administer Justice.
The legal aid agency serves low- and no-income clients throughout Kane, DuPage and McHenry counties on a variety of issues including foreclosure, divorce, child support, landlord-tenant complaints and immigration. Individuals living below 125 percent of the federal poverty line qualify for pro-bono attorneys and Administer Justice volunteers help guide low-income people living below 250 percent of the poverty line through the court process as well.
"The problems are enormous and gut-wrenching and we see a lot of tears," Leesley said. "But when you can help somebody take a step or have some hope, it's a wonderful way to make a living."
Leesley is one of a dozen Administer Justice staff members joined by a veritable army of volunteers. She oversees about 250 attorneys in Kane County who agree to work for free on the pro-bono cases. More than 700 volunteers do paralegal work, clean the building, stuff envelopes, file paperwork, make copies, serve as interpreters, plan events and even keep the office stocked with baked goods to welcome clients.
In 2011 Administer Justice served more than 6,700 people -- 2,200 more than the year before, according to Leesley.
"It's just growing in leaps and bounds," Leesley said.
The organization won an Image Award from the city of Elgin in March for its contribution to the community and has served as a model nationwide for offering legal aid.
Leesley connected to the organization in 2007 as a law student and found out very quickly she liked the work and the ability to problem solve with clients.
She identifies with the mission of Administer Justice, which aims to open up the legal system to everyone, regardless of income level.
"I firmly believe that you can't have a democracy and have a country that's under the rule of law if some of our citizens don't have access to the law and access to legal representation," Leesley said.
Before law consumed her time, Leesley worked in media and communications for many years in Illinois, Washington, D.C., Brussels and Canada.
Once she graduated from Northern she started her own "low-bono" practice, offering reduced cost services to clients referred by Administer Justice. Then she was hired as the tax controversy director before accepting her current position in January.
Leesley said, from a professional standpoint, Administer Justice is a place where attorneys learn from and help each other while serving the public.
Some people put in a few pro-bono hours per month while people like Theresa Buskey, of Sleepy Hollow, give far more time. Buskey worked the most in 2011, offering 900 pro-bono hours on top of the three days per week she works on the Administer Justice staff, Leesley said.
"The commitment, dedication and passion that I see from the people who are here serving is just very inspiring every day," Leesley said. "It's a place I just love coming to work."
Visit administerjustice.org for details.