ALUMNI PROFILE Michael O’Connor (JD ’89)

A direct impact

Michael O’Connor (JD ’89) shares lessons learned in civil legal aid

When Michael O’Connor (JD ’89) began working as a staff attorney at Prairie State Legal Services, he figured he’d be there a couple years, tops. Yet the importance of civil legal aid fueled him through 17 years as an attorney and 15 years as executive director of Prairie State, which offers free legal services to low-income and elderly clients in Illinois.

“When we go to law school, lots of us say we want to make the world a better place,” says O’Connor. “This is one of those areas of law where you really feel like you’re having a direct and substantial impact.”

Here are some of O’Connor’s biggest takeaways from a lifelong commitment to helping the people who need it the most.

Put yourself in clients’ shoes

One of O’Connor’s first real aha moments came courtesy of his time at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. During his clinical experience, he represented a man trying to claim his social security benefits. As a healthy 23-year-old, O’Connor couldn’t completely empathize with the situation, and the labyrinths of social security overwhelmed him. But his professor Hank Rose reminded him that beyond the bureaucracy, there was a human being who needed help.

“Getting to know your client, and getting to know how these disabilities are affecting him, is just very effective,” says O’Connor. “These clients are real people with real lives—same as me.”

“Spend more time listening than talking. Find out what’s really involved and what’s at stake.”

Understand the stakes

“The individual client stories—they’re not a testament to my great skills as an attorney so much as being able to help a person who is in great need,” says O’Connor.

One particular case stands out: When an elderly couple from a small town got sick and ended up in a nursing home rehabilitation center, their daughters became their legal agents. But when the couple healed and planned to go home, their daughters insisted they were too ill—all while draining their parents’ bank accounts. After six months, the couple connected with O’Connor. “Getting those folks back home—letting them live out the rest of their lives in dignity—was gratifying,” says O’Connor. “Had they not connected with legal aid, I think they would have died in that nursing home.”

Open your ears

When it comes to legal work, O’Connor says that it’s every lawyer’s job to pay careful attention. That advice has served him not just as an attorney, but in every facet of his career. “Spend more time listening than talking,” he says. “Whether it’s being a lawyer for a client or being a manager of a program, find out what’s really involved and what’s at stake. You have clients who are real people. You are involved in their lives. They have complicated problems, and if you’re lucky, you get to solve some of them.” –Megan Kirby (March 2022)

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