NIU’s Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic is a shining example of a “crazy idea that worked.”
So said LeRoy Pernell, former dean of the NIU College of Law, to a crowd of nearly 100 faculty, staff, alumni and supporters who gathered Wednesday, Nov. 16, to mark the clinic’s first decade of service to the Rockford community.
“When we first began discussing the idea of opening a clinic, we were told that this couldn’t happen,” Pernell said. “We were told that it was too expensive, and people wondered where we would find the clients to make it work.”
Undeterred, Pernell and the staff kept pursuing the idea.
Ultimately, they enlisted the assistance of Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives Mike Madigan, who embraced the concept of a facility that would not only provide hands-on learning for law students but also provide badly needed legal services to the indigent.
And it was only fitting, Madigan said, that the facility should be named in honor of his friend and mentor, the late Zeke Giorgi.
“It is very appropriate that this building is named in his honor, because serving those in need is what Zeke did throughout his political career,” Madigan told the assembled crowd.
“His legacy is one of commitment, of community and really having an open door … being accessible to the most vulnerable people in the community and always being there. That’s how we like to be in the clinic as well,” said NIU College of Law Dean Jennifer Rosato.
The spacious, modern facility was more than Pernell ever dreamed of, he admitted Wednesday, saying that he would have settled for a storefront to get the program launched.
“I have traveled to legal clinics all over the country, and I have never seen its equal,” said Pernell who now serves as dean of the Law School at Florida A&M.
“And I think the quality of this facility sends an important message to the people that are served here. It lets them know they are important and that they will get quality representation.”
In its first decade of service, 274 students have worked at the clinic, providing legal services to more than 2,000 clients.
The students typically focus on cases related to elder law (drafting wills, powers of attorney, etc.) or domestic abuse (helping victims obtain orders of protection or divorces, etc.). Clinics focusing on mediation of disputes and criminal defense also are offered.
During the course of the semester, they learn the mechanics of how to handle a case – interviewing clients, filing motions, writing memoranda and arguing cases before a judge.
Just as importantly, they also learn the people skills to help them deal with clients in crisis.
“They not only learn how to practice law, but also how to be respectful and responsive to the needs of the clients they serve,” said Rosato, who believes the learning that takes place in a clinical setting is some of the most valuable a student can receive. “This clinic has made a tremendous impact on our students, on the Rockford community, and ultimately upon the communities where our students go to practice law.”
NIU President John Peters, who helped foster the creation of the clinic, praised its work as a shining example of how higher education, and government, can be a force for good.
“Government is needed to make life better for people, especially those who are less fortunate,” said Peters, adding that society cannot lose sight of that fact, even in difficult economic times. “We (universities) must account for every dollar we receive, and show that it makes a difference. This legal clinic is an area that we can point to and say, ‘This was a good investment.’ ”