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NIU Law COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic receives ISBA Excellence in Legal Education Award

July 12, 2021

The Northern Illinois University College of Law COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic was honored by the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) with its 2020-21 Excellence in Legal Education Award.

The award, established by the ISBA’s Committee on Legal Education, Admissions and Competence (LEAC), is designed to honor a law school program that emphasizes real world skills for its students.

“We are truly humbled by this prestigious recognition by the ISBA’s LEAC Committee,” said NIU Law Dean Cassandra Hill.  “I am extremely proud of the dedication of our clinical faculty and the resiliency of our students.  Our clinical faculty members – Professors Paul Cain, Wendy Vaughn, and Colleen Boraca – remained steadfast and developed an innovative new program that increased access to justice to those in our community most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Clinical Faculty (from left): Professors Wendy Vaughn, Paul Cain, and Colleen Boraca

Prior to the pandemic, the clinical faculty were operating two in-person clinics at the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic in Rockford and one in Aurora at Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. In March 2020, the clinical faculty had to quickly pivot and began thinking about how to provide rich clinical opportunities for students, while also meeting the immediate needs of low-income clients experiencing a host of legal issues exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

On May 18, 2020, the NIU College of Law launched its COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic.  The Clinic addresses a multitude of legal challenges faced by primarily low-income individuals during the pandemic.  Students are advising clients in a variety of legal matters including unemployment, landlord/tenant issues, domestic violence, family law, public benefits, expungement/sealing of criminal records, as well as issues related to elder abuse, guardianships, and wills and powers of attorney throughout the entire state of Illinois.

“It was important to us that we provide the most robust experiential learning course possible for our students’ ability to serve the needs of clients,” said Clinical Professor Paul Cain who served as Interim Director of Clinics during the past year.  He also noted that the Clinic was supported by other NIU Law faculty members, alumni, and legal professionals and partnerships including the Public Interest Law Initiative’s Illinois Free Legal Answers portal and the Illinois Coalition for Domestic Violence’s Virtual Legal Clinic.

In 2018, the NIU College of Law’s Civil Justice Clinic also received the Excellence in Legal Award. Under the direction of Clinical Professor Wendy Vaughn, students in the Civil Justice Clinic perform a variety of legal work such as drafting estate planning documents and representing clients in civil matters involving orders of protection, domestic violence related family law, small claims and probate issues. In addition to providing representation to individual clients, the Clinic collaborates closely with community agencies and advocates for systemic changes that increase access to justice, supportive services, and critical resources for its clients.