|Prairie State Staff Spotlight: Bart Wolek
A career in civil legal aid was not on Bart Wolek’s mind when he graduated from Southern Illinois School of Law in 2015. Having been admitted to the Illinois Bar that same year, he enjoyed working in private practice along with his fiancée, Brooke, in southern Illinois.
“Prototypical attorneys, you’re either going to work in a government job either as a public defender or as a prosecutor, or go out into private practice,” Wolek says. “I think that’s fairly common, at least when I was speaking with my friends when we were in law school. No one was looking into, say Land of Lincoln, or Prairie State or Cabrini Green Legal Aid.”
That would change when his fiancée was offered a job in the Knox County State’s Attorney’s Office—her home county. Wolek was fine with that decision, given they were planning to have children and wanted one of their families nearby to help. Soon after, Wolek learned of a job opportunity at Prairie State’s Galesburg office. He recalled being interviewed a day before his wedding. He was hired in August 2017.
We asked Wolek some additional questions. Here are his answers:
What do you do at Prairie State?
I handle everything except the domestic violence work in Galesburg. Most of my work involves housing, public benefits, education, working with veterans, and cases to remove barriers to employment, such as sealing and expungement of criminal records.
What do you like about your job?
I definitely like the diversity of the fields that I work in. With all those different areas of law, I think that keeps everything fresh and I’m able to be a jack of all trades. That’s similar to the work that I did in private practice, so it was a fairly easy transition.
I also love the collaborative nature of Prairie State, both at the local level and organization-wide. I know that I can easily call up an attorney at another office who handles similar cases just as easy as I can call (Co-Directors of Litigation) Sarah (Megan) and Bernie (Shapiro). I think that’s critical and has really helped me. It’s very nice to have all of these attorneys and resources to reach out to.
What has been your proudest moment at Prairie State?
About a year ago, I was representing a client in a public housing termination case. The housing agency alleged that the client had committed criminal conduct and was trying to evict her, but all she was doing was acting in self-defense because another tenant had attacked her. We were able to convince the hearing officer to reverse the decision.
Luckily that was earlier in the process and did not reach the courts. We were able to stop it before it turned into an eviction, which could have led to having an eviction complaint filed against her, which can affect a person's ability to find other housing, maintain their credit or even get a job.
What is your advice for attorneys wanting to enter civil legal aid or volunteer their time?
Just be patient with clients and try to be understanding of them. That’s a big change between working in private practice where you have clients who are paying you versus working in civil legal aid where their circumstances are very different.
So just be aware that if a client isn’t getting back to you, it’s probably not because they’re trying to blow you off or anything like that. It may be other external factors that are going on. I think that’s important to remember before coming to any conclusions or rush to judgment.