Pro Bono Spotlight: Giel Stein

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Equal justice - it's in the family

When private attorneys take pro bono cases with us, sometimes it’s because they get inspired. Sometimes they like the challenge. And in some cases, it’s just in their blood.

Growing up on the northern border of Israel, Giel saw his share of injustice first hand. But it was his grandfather, a lawyer who escaped from Nazi Germany, who really inspired him to go into law.

As a German refugee, Giel’s grandfather could not speak Hebrew well enough to continue practicing law in Israel. He took a job with the sewer and sanitation department in Tel Aviv, but he never lost his love for the law. Every day, he put on a three-piece suit and carried his briefcase to the sanitation department, where he’d change into uniform for work until it was time to clock out and put on his suit again to go home.

“His love of discipline, his love of the law, and his message to me as a young boy was that the law is the first frontier against the worst kinds of injustice,” recalls Giel.

“I always wanted to walk at least a few steps in his shoes.”

It didn’t take long to match his grandfather’s steps. Giel traveled to the United States and studied law at Northwestern University, earning a Ph.D. in sociology along the way. His studies opened up new understandings of the way the law affects communities, and the social and cultural origins of our legal system.

After graduation he joined Winston & Strawn as a litigation associate, where he discovered a passion for pro bono work with indigent plaintiffs (people without sufficient income to afford a lawyer). Giel then spent eight years as Senior Counsel and Special Assistant US Attorney with the Social Security Administration, eventually leaving public service to take a job with Clark Hill, where he currently litigates cases as a Senior Counsel.

What it means to settle a civil rights case

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At Clark Hill, Giel got connected with J. Cunyon Gordon, Senior Counsel and Program Director of the Settlement Assistance Program at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Once a judge determines that the case should go to a settlement conference, rather than a trial, the program matches a private pro bono attorney with an indigent litigant. Attorneys who volunteer must analyze the case, work with the plaintiff to develop a legal strategy, and then negotiate for the best possible outcome.

“I view it as a public service,” says Giel. “The Settlement Assistance Program recognizes the essential value of good counsel.”

With litigation costs soaring, and judges’ dockets being too busy, a settlement conference is often the best opportunity for a plaintiff to get results quickly and cost effectively. It’s also the last chance for litigants to have personal control over the outcome of their case, as opposed to leaving it up to a jury or a judge to decide.

Putting civil rights settlement to the test

In 2017, Giel was paired through the Settlement Assistance Program with a client named Bishoy Abo-Saif. Bishoy had been studying law at John Marshall Law School, a major undertaking for someone with severe cerebral palsy. Paralyzed from the shoulders down, Bishoy has limited movement in his hands. When the note-taker he was promised by the school didn’t materialize, his mother took notes for him. Nevertheless, the school dismissed him for unsatisfactory grades.

Arguing that he was insufficiently provided accommodations for his disability, Bishoy filed a pro se lawsuit (meaning he chose to represent himself) and the judge found his case appropriate for settlement. A lawyer can assist a pro se litigant when navigating the settlement process.

“In all cases, there are legal issues that need to be argued where a lawyer can be a real advocate on your behalf.  To achieve a positive result, a settlement strategy has to be created and argued persuasively,” explains Giel.

“As settlement counsel, you have a responsibility to the client to put their interest first.”

Giel put his nose to the grindstone and worked the case for almost a year. As is typical in settlement conferences, both parties had to submit a brief to the judge detailing the strengths and weaknesses of their case and offering positions for settlement. Then the judge met privately with both parties, shuttling back and forth and trying to negotiate each side to move towards the middle. After a few hours, the settlement conference failed – they just could not reach a resolution.

But Giel didn’t give up. The opposing counsel was open to dispute resolution, and during the ensuing weeks the two of them hammered out the more serious points of contention after the conference with the judge.

“It took about nine months, but we were able to craft a settlement agreement that gave Mr. Abo-Saif a positive outcome where he received important concessions,” says Giel.

“And most importantly, he didn’t have to hire a lawyer and go to trial and roll the dice there.”

The upshot of pro bono

Giel doesn’t beat around the bushes: pro bono work is hard.

“There are no short cuts, and you usually end up giving up some of your evenings and weekends – but it’s worth it.”

Attorneys have billable clients and hours they have to meet through their firm, but Giel argues that pro bono clients are owed their best work because those clients are often the most vulnerable and depend on their volunteer attorneys. As professionals with the ability to use the law, attorneys wield a lot of power – they need to use it for a good cause.

 “As a pro bono attorney, I’m there because they don’t have anyone and can’t afford anyone,” says Giel.

“I like pro bono work because it is so personal - on a pro bono case you change someone’s life.”