Teri Ross, (JD ’06), Public Interest Law

Teri Ross (JD ’06), serves as the interim executive director at Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), a free legal service providing comprehensive and simplified resources to civil legal issues. The organization serves primarily lower-income people and gives practical, actionable ways to resolve their issues, Ross said.

With a background in graphic design, Ross came to law school focused on public interest. She saw a law degree as a tool to affect positive change. Ross recently discussed her time as a busy law student and her work at ILAO.

Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why did you choose to attend the DePaul College of Law?

When I looked at law school, I knew that I wanted to do public interest work. I knew I didn’t want to work for a law firm; I wanted to work for the public good. That is what I focused my search efforts on, and of course, there are numerous schools that have public interest offerings. DePaul seemed to have a lot of different options. There were numerous clinics that you could participate in that were focused on a variety of public interest areas. DePaul had many people, alums and different government, public sector area connections. 

Q: While you were at DePaul, did you participate with any of the clinics or other extracurricular activities, and what was that like?

I made sure that I was volunteering at organizations where I was interested in possibly working. At the time there was a community development clinic that I participated in during my second year, and that was run by Professor Alicia Alvarez. My first year, I would say that I spent time getting the lay of the land, getting used to going back to school because of course I had been out of school for 12 years. I had forgotten how to study and be a student. It took me a while to get back into it. I also worked the first summer, between my first and second year, at Law Career Services. I was the public interest person there. That also afforded me good opportunities to learn about all the public interest organizations in Chicago and Illinois. I learned what organizations were available and doing what kind of work. That was a really good position. 

I also joined the Public Interest Law Association (PILA). I also started to get to know who of the professors were interested in service. I started to form relationships with those professors, and the strongest one that I formed was with Professor Leonard L. Cavise. He eventually started the Center for Public Interest Law. I sort of pushed my way onto that committee, which was made up of both students and professors. 

I also took advantage of some externships while I was there. I worked at the attorney general’s office within the division of civil rights. I also did an externship at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, and I worked in the HIV-AIDS unit there helping clients.

Q: Can you talk about how you came to your current position and what that entails?

With my first position out of law school, I was fortunate to get a staff attorney position at Prairie State Legal Services, and I worked in Waukegan in Lake County. I worked there for two years, and I primarily worked with the homeless population in Lake County. I represented them in cases involving getting public, assisted housing, getting disability, social security, food stamps and other public benefits. I also did intake at the domestic violence victims emergency shelter on a weekly basis. That was a great experience, and what I realized doing that work was that I really liked the clients but I didn’t much like going to court. I didn’t like the litigation process.

Over the course of two years, while working at Prairie State, there was a resource that I used almost every single day, Illinois Legal Aid Online. They had a job opening for an outreach coordinator so I applied. I was an outreach coordinator for about a year and a half. Then there was a new position that the executive director at the time created called program director. The organization was growing, and the [executive director] role was changing so she needed a leader to run the program. I was doing the services while she focused on the administration and fundraising. I did that for about eight years, and then that executive director, my boss, left the organization in April. I took over as interim executive director. 

Q: What would you consider some of your top accomplishments since starting at ILAO?

I lead a team of leaders so I don’t want to by any means suggest that these are my accomplishments, but these are the accomplishments of the organization. We offer more than 1,000 resources for more than about 600 legal issues—everything from bed bugs to dealing with a condo association to domestic abuse to social security disability and everything in between. Most people come to us for family law advice so divorce and parenting issues around custody. In terms of accomplishments, it would be managing, with a relatively small staff, a very large, comprehensive library. We are one of the best free legal services website in the country. We have more than 2 million users that come through our site. We had, so far this year, 2.1 million in 2018, and that number continues to grow. There’s clearly a high demand for these kinds of services. 

One of the big changes that we made two years ago was to our technology platform so that it could better support the mobile experience because more than half of our users come to us on a mobile device rather than a desktop or a laptop. There are many people who don’t have access to desktops and laptops, but they have effectively a super computer in their pocket. I think that this was important for us to do.

The other thing that we did was starting in 2013, we offered the site not just in English but also in Spanish so that people can get legal information in their native tongue. The reason why we chose Spanish was based off of the population that we serve. Spanish is by far and away the second most spoken language in the state. People who have limited English proficiency typically have a lot more barriers that they have to face. We’re going to expand the site to Polish. We won’t have all of the content in Polish, but we will select some of the most important pieces to be translated. 

Q: Do other states or similar organizations reach out to you all for advice?

We do a lot of informal consulting with other states and other programs. And we’re happy to do so. It is mutually beneficial and we are happy to share what we have learned and the mistakes that we’ve made and what our best practices are with others. ​