The Chicago Lawyers Collective Provides Legal Assistance to Underserved Communities. With an initial goal of doing legal education workshops at local churches on the city’s South and West sides, Nicole Scott, Founder of NMS Family Law, Kendra Spearman Founder of Spearman Law LLC, and Henderson Banks, Founding Partner of Henderson Banks Law, founded the Chicago Lawyers Collective in March of 2019. Shortly after passing the bar, Crystal Sims, Partner at Henderson Banks Law, joined bringing their team of three to four, further making it their mission to provide legal assistance, education, and support to Chicago’s most underserved and overlooked communities.
Racquel Coral (RC): Since launching, what are some of the services that you have provided?
Crystal Sims (CS): We understand that there is oftentimes a disconnect between the client and attorney, so it’s important to show Black people that there are attorneys out there who look like them. Recently, we have been accepting the call of the community. From providing pro bono services for peaceful protestors who were arrested following the murder of George Floyd and for individuals with strong cases who we don’t want to become casualties of the system. We’ve also donated funds for and spoken at the funeral of Amaria Jones, a young girl who was recently murdered due to senseless acts of violence. Her family shared that she wanted to be an attorney, so we wanted to assure them that they were not alone and that Amaria’s life mattered. Especially to a group of Black attorneys who founded their own firms.
Henderson Banks (HB): When we initially sat down, our intent was to educate the community. We felt that by providing legal education, we could provide a service and level the playing field. But it has since evolved into much more than that. In addition to providing pro bono work, we have given money to businesses that have been impacted by the looting, and we’re still evolving.
RC: How has the response been since launching?
HB: It’s been both amazing and fulfilling.
RC: Did you imagine the response being like this?
Kendra Spearman (KS): The thing about the criminal justice system is that it is so overwhelming and so broad and that you sometimes don’t know where to start. We started out with an agenda to do presentations at churches, and then doors began opening up. Statistics show that once Black and poor people come into contact with the system, they begin to feel discouraged and defeated. It also shows that plaintiffs are discouraged from filing lawsuits, even when they have viable claims because when people think about having a lawyer, they often think about how expensive it is. So we want to eradicate those stereotypes that lawyers are greedy and only care about themselves. We come from backgrounds similar to the backgrounds of some of our clients so we understand the issues that they face. They can relate to us more because of the shared experience.
RC: Have you found that those who you represent are more trusting or were here barriers that you had to overcome to obtain their trust?
HB: One thing that has helped is the fact that we reach out to people offering to volunteer our time and services. We never ask for anything in return or a retainer. That in itself is an initial shock to them. But after seeing that we want to help, their guard is down. This in turn gives us a sense of gratitude and appreciation that I can’t even put into words because some of the things that we’ve done after only a short period of time have been life-changing.
CS: One of the pro bono cases that we’re assisting with is a criminal defense case for a young man. Just by providing him with a free service, you could see the sense of hope in him. In his mind, he feels like he has the best opportunity to go up against a system that hasn’t always favored him. That sense of hope also comes from the fact that we look like him, and when we have those private conversations it almost turns into mentorship. So it’s like yes, I’m representing you, but I’m also counting on you to remain level-headed while we do our job. For us, it’s more than just helping our clients win their cases, we want to see them do well in the future.
Nicole Scott (NS): Our jobs are taxing every single day. So to do this kind of work fulfills us. It’s not demanding, it’s helping people’s lives. That’s what brings us our joy. I also want to give kudos to Jim Allen. He saw and got behind us, and because of support like that, that’s what propelled us into action.
RC: Has there been any additional support or partnerships?
HB: A number of people have seen what we’re doing and reached out to see how they can help. When word got out that we would be providing pro bono services to protestors, at least 30 people volunteered their time. Other organizations that were doing the same kind of work also reached out.
RC: What has been the greatest impact that you’ve made in the lives of those who have received your help?
CS: We’re currently working on a case with a young man, and it’s changed his perspective on life. Upon visiting him in the county jail, we learned that his bond was set at a ridiculously large amount. I called Kendra asking what we should do, and Henderson had one on one, man to man, Black man to Black man talks with him. That was imperative because he was able to share things with him that gave the young man hope. I’m proud to say that after going back and forth for some time, we won the motion to release him and have him home until his case. This showed the importance of what happens when people advocate for you. It’s that sense of pride and hope. At the end of the day, I don’t want anything, I just want my clients to know that I care.
HB: I just want to add that while this young man was incarcerated, his mother was battling cancer, and since being released, he has been able to care for her. The way that the young man thanked us shows the profound impact that we made on his life.
KS: When people have access to their attorneys it makes a difference. With bigger law firms, sometimes it’s hard to have a lot of one-on-one time with your lawyer about issues outside of litigation. Because our clients have access to us, we can take on that big brother/big sister role with them. Yes, you made this mistake, but now you have to get yourself together. I’ve seen young people enroll in GED programs and attend trade schools all because they had me in their ear saying that they needed to change their lifestyle.
A lot of the issues with the criminal justice system though aren’t seen on the surface. There are a lot of systemic issues. I’ve seen clients almost miss out on important moments all because of the rules surrounding their electronic monitoring devices, and can’t get their necessary movement approved by the sheriff’s office. When they have an attorney like me who will work after hours and spend time on the phone fighting for that movement, it gives them hope. That kind of access gives them hope that someone is fighting for them and it motivates the client to work on being accountable and to focus on self-improvement. It also provides a sense of fulfillment that we are changing lives even after the case is over.
RC: Aside from doing the work because you care, what else do you want people to know?
HB: This is only the beginning. When looking at where are versus where we initially started, there is so much more opportunity and need in the community than what we originally thought, which has created an even bigger vision. How can we help 100 more people, how can we take this to another city so that we can have an even greater impact.
KS: I want people to know that just because you’re not a lawyer, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get involved. We need people to be mindful of who they vote for, especially when it comes to the judges. They make decisions that affect p
eople of our communities on a day to day basis. When it comes to the criminal system, it affects everything, from poverty to people’s ability to get an education.
RC: What does the future hold?
CS: We want to continue serving the city of Chicago and impoverished communities, and continue to let it grow. We also want to have an influence on politics and the criminal justice system, in addition to having an influence on fellow Black people by showing that there are firms out here with attorneys who look like them. Yes, we are the Chicago Lawyers Collective, but we also represent three individual firms that extend our resources time and money to those in need and it’s not going to stop.
HB: Growth. I see a time where our organization will have a number of members and we’ll be able to have a greater impact due to the number of resources. I would also say just becoming a movement. With the plethora of issues affecting the Black community, it can become discouraging to think that you can’t do anything about it. But I think the fact that we just decided to start somewhere has impacted other people to want to volunteer. I can see this as a movement where we are influencing our community to know and understand that we have the power to change. We have the power to make a difference.
NS: Scholarship opportunities. We are going to do one in memory of Amaria Jones. And also buy up real estate in low-income communities to give back. As well as continuing to create workshops that give people the legal education they need.
KS: I want to add that we need more Black attorneys and to just encourage young people to become attorneys. I’m tired walking into courtrooms and having people look at me differently all because they are not used to seeing a Black attorney. So we want more young Black people to go to law school and know that this is an achievable goal.
RC: How do you manage to operate your firms in addition to the work you’re doing with the Chicago Lawyers Collective?
KS: We all came out of law school at different times. So once you’re up and running it’s hard to stop and start over, especially when you have clients. But when you see that you’re making a change in someone’s life, it motivates you to keep going. Just having a presence at Amaria Jones’s funeral had an impact on her family. So to see that or having a client call to give you a positive update on where they are in life causes us to overlook the burden that it can be sometimes.
HB: The fact that we have each other, and are all very strong in our respective rights makes it easier. Also, the fact that we have one another’s individual expertise saves us time and makes us more efficient, rather than feeling like we have to do it on our own.
CS: The emotional support that we have is a big help too. We prepare each other emotionally for the frustration that we may experience and the long days. We are a family and that’s what keeps us going.
For more information on the Chicago Lawyer’s Collective visit Kendra Spearman at https://spearmanlaw.com/, Nicole Scott at https://nmsfamilylaw.com/, and Crystal Sims and Henderson Banks at https://hendersonbankslaw.com/.
Contributing Writer, Racquel Coral is a lifestyle writer based in Chicago. Find her on social media @withloveracquel.