Donna Peel stepped away from her position in the antitrust division at the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004 to focus on raising her young children.
She always planned to return to the practice of law. But Peel never expected that during her career break she would start an organization that helps stay-at-home parents like her plug into pro bono agencies as a way to keep their legal skills sharp. Of course, that’s exactly what happened.
Peel founded the suburban Chicago-based Pro Bono Network nearly six years ago, and last year the nonprofit organization helped more than 200 lawyers in Illinois donate roughly 2,500 hours of volunteer legal work to solve problems for domestic abuse victims, incarcerated mothers and tenants in disputes with landlords, among others.
Last month, after 12 years as a (mostly) stay-at-home mom, Peel transitioned to Big Law, taking an of counsel position at Kirkland & Ellis. She is handling premerger antitrust clearance with partner James Mutchnik, a well-regarded antitrust lawyer whom Peel previously worked with in the Justice Department’s Chicago office. (Peel’s husband, Drew Peel, is a former Kirkland litigator and current name partner at Chicago’s Rachlis Duff Adler Peel & Kaplan.)
The Pro Bono Network is currently run by Sheila Pont and Heena Musabji as interim co-executive directors. In January, it will begin a search for a new executive director to replace Peel.
Peel said her experience in the antitrust world—based on economics and analyzing markets—helped her see part-time and nonworking lawyers as an untapped supply of pro bono legal talent.
She had tried to do pro bono work on her own, but found that the hours were often not favorable for someone who had to pick up kids from school or take them to events in the evening.
“I’m seeing all these extremely talented women slinging out hot lunch at school,” Peel said. “And I think that’s how the antitrust background helped—you quickly analyze a market and see an opportunity with all this wasted talent and all this need. The question was, how do we get the two together?”
The Pro Bono Network teams up with legal aid agencies to help them staff projects with volunteer lawyers. Peel said it acts like a Big Law pro bono coordinator but for stay-at-home parents, lawyers who practice in the suburbs and attorneys at small firms or solo shops. And the organization makes sure that the work can be done from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., which Pell called “coffee time, not pick-up time.”
Peel said the only similar pro bono network she is aware of is the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project in Washington, D.C. But she hopes the idea will expand to other cities. After a Forbes.com article earlier this year about her organization, she said lawyers from other cities called and asked about how to start their own pro bono projects.
While Peel (pictured right) expected non-working parents would be the only lawyers interested in a program to help find volunteer work, she said today that only about one-third of the lawyers are from that demographic.
Pont, who helped build Pro Bono Network alongside Peel, said the organization is excited to see what a professional with administrative experience can do to grow the place. (Tax records show that the nonprofit paid Peel and Pont a relative pittance—a combined $14,000—in 2014.)
Peel’s departure from a hands-on role at the Pro Bono Network is not unlike how other volunteers leave the organization when they return to the workforce.
“She’s a perfect example of why Pro Bono Network exists,” Pont said. “It exists for someone to use their energies and help do what they can during that time when they’re not working full-time.”