A Day in the Life of a Legal Aid Attorney: Meet Marty Cozzola, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services
Describe what a typical work day looks like for you.
As I’m sure is the case for most public interest attorneys, there is no typical work day! This is especially true for me as a Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) attorney because my time is generally split between working on my own caseload (and running our portion of the IL Armed Forces Legal Aid Network) and supporting/supervising volunteers with their pro bono CVLS cases.
There are days when I spend all day travelling from courtroom to courtroom at the Daley Center, covering hearings and other dates for both my own cases and those being handled by volunteer attorneys who are otherwise unable to appear in court. On the days when I have more time in my own office, I work on my own cases (mainly foreclosure, decedent’s estates, and rental housing) and talk strategy with volunteer attorneys—most of whom are representing veteran or active duty military clients.
My day-to-day work also involves reviewing case memos put together by interns and retired attorney volunteers to determine whether CVLS will be able to assist potential clients with their legal issues. Through this process, I’m able to vet clients, their legal issues and volunteer attorneys to ensure a fruitful pro bono case placement. In the first year of its existence, CVLS received over 100 referrals from the IL-AFLAN hotline for veterans in need of legal assistance and I spoke to nearly all of these referrals at least once during our intake process.
What types of issues do you help veterans the most with?
The veterans who I end up representing are typically facing some sort of housing issue—a dispute with a landlord, attempting to avoid foreclosure, or dealing with a deceased parent’s house. The majority of the IL-AFLAN cases that CVLS receives referrals for (and subsequently gets involved with), however, are family law issues—divorce, adoptions, and various post-dissolution matters. For example, in the first three months of this fiscal year, 22 of the 55 referrals CVLS received from the hotline (or 40%) were for family law matters.
Your father is a long-time legal aid attorney at LAF. Did he influence your choice of career? And what advice has he shared?
I used to joke (to myself, mainly) that my dad (Rich Cozzola of LAF) and I were the world’s first public interest dynasty until I realized that CVLS’ Executive Director Meg Benson had a daughter who was already a staff attorney at Chicago Legal Clinic. And so even though we’re not the first dynasty (it turns out there’s one that predates the Benson/Simon dynasty), we’re certainly a rarity and it would be hard for me to argue that his (and my mom’s) career(s) had no bearing on my own.
If I didn’t grow up with my parents setting the example, I wouldn’t have headed down the path that led me to CVLS. I was (am) an Eagle Scout, on the board of my college’s chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, and an AmeriCorps VISTA. So it made a lot of sense that I arrived at law school with a singular goal in mind: to get a job in public interest. And now that I have that dream job, it’s time for me to forge my own path. My dad has provided plenty of legitimate advice in the first few years of my legal career but probably the most important lesson has been where to get the best Greek omelet in the Loop.
As a (newer) legal aid attorney, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
While management at CVLS would probably argue this is a skill I’m still a long way from truly mastering, I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is “less is more.”
In your spare time, we hear you enjoy tooling around in a classic bicycle, a 1978 Peugeot AO-8. What’s your favorite part of Chicago to explore?
My mom bought the bike new here in Chicago when she was writing her dissertation and passed it onto my dad in the 90’s. It got passed onto me when I shipped off to law school and I have poured more money than I care to admit into keeping all the parts operational over the last three years.
Navigating the Chicago grid is incredibly easy on a bike, but I’ve come to love the lengthy trails that take you out of the City. The southbound Lakeshore path has beautiful views of the skyline, is usually relatively empty, and connects to trails in Indiana. My most recent discovery, however, came this summer when I was riding around the northwest side and I rode through a tiny triangle of a neighborhood called “the Villa” that looks like no other neighborhood I’ve seen in this city. There’s tiny parks on every block. It’s worth a visit. Unfortunately, I tore my ACL in July and my exploration missions are on hold for the foreseeable future, but I hope to be back at it soon!
The mission of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) is to mission is to coordinate, support and promote the voluntary pro bono legal representation of the Chicago area’s poor and working poor. With more than 50 years of experience, CVLS is the first and pre-eminent pro bono civil legal aid provider in Chicago. Thanks to over 2,300 volunteer attorneys CVLS provides the most comprehensive, efficient and cost-effective civil legal aid in Chicago. CVLS has been a grantee of the IEJF since our first grant cycle in 2001. CVLS joined the IL Armed Forces Legal Aid Network in 2017.