L to R: Patrick McGovern, McDonald's Corp.; Theresa Jaffe, Chair of CDEL's Winter Benefit; John Conroy, Jr., Baker & McKenzie; Dale Nichols, Northern Trust.
L to R: Patrick McGovern, McDonald’s Corp.; Theresa Jaffe, Chair of CDEL’s Winter Benefit; John Conroy, Jr., Baker & McKenzie; Dale Nichols, Northern Trust.

On a February evening, legal professionals and philanthropists gathered at Baker & McKenzie’s Chicago office to celebrate an organization that has made a difference in the city.

For more than 26 years, the Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL) has provided free legal services to Chicago-area, low-income seniors and disabled individuals. Last year, CDEL’s staff and volunteers, which include law firm lawyers, in-house counsel and other legal department staff members, assisted more than 3,200 clients with a variety of legal issues, from eviction to elder financial abuse. CDEL’s February benefit, “Light Up the Loop,” brought together hundreds of the organization’s supporters and recognized some of its outstanding volunteers.

Baker & McKenzie Partner Erin Maus, who is the immediate past president of CDEL’s board of directors, says her firm’s lawyers have enjoyed volunteering through CDEL’s Senior Center Initiative (SCI), through which attorneys travel to local senior centers where they help seniors prepare end-of-life documents, such a powers of attorney and living wills. “The number of seniors who have been assisted on a pro bono basis in preparing these documents is a testament to what a little outreach can do to help an entire population of people,” Maus says.

Baker & McKenzie also has partnered with the legal departments at Accenture and McDonald’s Corp. at SCI workshops. “The SCI is the perfect opportunity for in-house counsel to make meaningful impact very quickly,” Maus says.

Kristina Kerwin, counsel-employment law at Accenture, says her company has been volunteering at CDEL’s SCI workshops two to three times a year for the past three years. She says it’s the personal nature of the work that makes it so rewarding for Accenture’s attorneys and the seniors they assist. “Many of the seniors are so appreciative of our help that we often end our meetings with a hug instead of a handshake,” she says.

Patrick McGovern, who is senior counsel at McDonald’s and also on CDEL’s board of directors, says his legal department has participated in at least five SCI workshops at different senior centers since June 2010. He credits McDonald’s’ involvement with CDEL to General Counsel Gloria Santona. “She encourages us and affords us the time within the workday to volunteer for these projects,” he says. “It’s rewarding both on a personal level and for the company.”

At CDEL’s February benefit, wealth-management company Northern Trust received the CDEL Corporate Partner of the Year Award. The company’s attorneys helped about 40 low-income seniors through three SCI workshops in 2011, which was its first year of involvement with CDEL. Northern Trust’s assistant general counsel, Dale Nichols, says his company’s lawyers are enthusiastic about volunteering at CDEL because of the organization’s impeccable training program and the inspiring outreach efforts of its staff members. “I give them all the credit, because they really know what they’re doing,” he says.