Mission & Staff

The mission of the Pro Se Litigants’ Settlement Assistance Program is to provide meaningful access to justice to the thousands of indigent litigants who file federal civil rights lawsuits without the benefit of counsel. The judges and magistrate judges of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois refer cases to the Settlement Assistance Program when the parties have asked for a settlement conference or when the judge has determined that one is appropriate, and the unrepresented litigant agrees to accept counsel for the limited purpose of settling the case. 

All of the stakeholders – the plaintiff, the defendant and the judge – agree that the adversary process works more effectively if both parties are represented by capable counsel.  The Court refers a broad variety of cases to the Settlement Assistance Program - employment discrimination (all bases), prisoners’ constitutional rights (medical care, conditions of confinement, safety and excessive force), fair debt collection, predatory lending and a raft of other types of cases. Program staff reviews the cases and matches the pro se litigants with volunteer attorneys who then represent them through a settlement conference.

The volunteer attorneys do not prepare the case for trial or engage in discovery and motion practice. Rather, their duties are limited to analyzing the case, working with the plaintiff to develop a strategy to settle the case, making a specific settlement demand and representing the plaintiff at a settlement conference with the judge.

In 2016 the Program enjoyed the participation of seventy-six unique attorneys from a wide variety of law firms, ranging from some of Chicago’s largest and most prestigious to small firms and solo practitioners.  Because much of the time-consuming litigation activity is bypassed in these cases, they can be completed in no more than 90 days from appointment to settlement. These compact assignments provide an excellent opportunity for young attorneys to hone their advocacy skills in the federal court.

Key Program Staff

J. Cunyon Gordon, Senior Counsel and Director of the Settlement Assistance Program