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How a laid-off lawyer found meaning doing pro-bono work

For as long as he can remember, Harold Meerbaum has had a compassion for people and their problems.

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For as long as he can remember, Harold Meerbaum has had a compassion for people and their problems.

It began when a friend approached him, asking if he could talk to him about some of his problems. Other friends soon reached out to him as well. Despite his demanding schedule as an AP student, tennis player, and orchestra member, Meerbaum would always take the time to help a friend.

Decades later, Meerbaum is putting his good people skills to use for a worthy cause. A patent lawyer by profession, Meerbaum was laid off from his firm in late 2009 and had been looking for work. In the meantime, however, he decided he would try to make a difference in the lives of people in our local community. "I wanted to do volunteer work in an area where there is a need, and where I could learn some new and marketable skills," he said.

He found his calling through the Jewish United Fund (JUF) Community Legal Services, which provides free legal services to individuals and families who need it but can't afford it. There may not have been a need for patent lawyers, but at the time, there was a shortage of bankruptcy lawyers. Determined to do good and explore a new area of law, Meerbaum decided to volunteer with JUF Community Legal Services and take on bankruptcy cases.

Meerbaum knew that he would be helping people solve personal and financial problems in order to regain control of their lives. What he didn't foresee was how much of an emotional impact this would have on his own life. "It's like being half-lawyer and half-psychologist," he said. "You're there to support these clients … I just didn't realize that [before I started], but as soon as I went to my first meeting [with a client] and saw that person breaking down right in front of me, it was so hard I had to take a break."

Every Monday, if Meerbaum chooses to do so, he takes on a new case. "There is no typical situation or client," he said. Meerbaum tries to help clients with the process of filing for bankruptcy and advises others of different options if bankruptcy isn't the appropriate remedy for their circumstance.

There is an abundance of cases in the turbulent economy, as well as immense gratitude for lawyers like Meerbaum that are volunteering their time and heart by doing pro-bono work. Before Meerbaum has even suggested any legal advice, clients often thank him just for being there to work with them. "Some have said, 'I want you to know you're the first person who knows about this,' and in a lot of instances, even their families don't know [about their financial difficulties]," he said. "I haven't even done anything yet, just taken notes, and they'll say, 'I feel so much better that someone is listening to my story and am so thankful there is someone who is willing to help.'"

Seeing how much his clients value his work makes it all worthwhile for Meerbaum. "I just like the fact that I can be there for someone in their time of need," he said. "They put their trust and confidence in you and that's what makes it all worthwhile."

Meerbaum hopes his work will inspire other attorneys to get involved and do pro-bono work for people in need. And while he's still searching for employment, he is emotionally compensated with knowing he is making a difference in our community.

JUF Community Legal Services provides legal assistance in civil cases and does not handle criminal cases. Some of the common practice areas include bankruptcy, housing and family law. JUF Community Legal Services works in partnership with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS). For more information, call Lindsay Yaffa at (312) 444-2833.

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