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Young Lawyer Levels The Playing Field For McLean County Residents

Adrian Barr poses
Ryan Denham
Local legal aid attorney Adrian Barr.

Even if you’ve never been arrested yourself, anyone who’s watched reruns of Law & Order knows that you have the right to an attorney when you’re charged with a crime.

But that’s not the case when you face civil legal issues, which can derail your life with the same force as a criminal charge. Facing foreclosure? Seeking an order of protection against an abuser? Unless you have the money to hire an attorney, you might be on your own.

That’s where Adrian Barr comes in. He’s the managing attorney for Prairie State Legal Services’ Bloomington office, which offers free legal services for low-income people and seniors who have serious civil legal problems and need legal help to solve them.

Barr recently earned the prestigious Chicago Bar Foundation Sun-Times Public Interest Law Fellowship for his legal aid work. The young attorney was cited for his role in the launch of an early Illinois JusticeCorps collaboration in McLean County—making the Law and Justice Center more welcoming and less intimidating for people without lawyers—as well as his work to standardize complicated legal forms across the state.

“When people who don’t have a lot of money face a legal issue, what you see is that it’s a really big deal,” he said. “It can throw them into homelessness or other really stressful and bad situation. We’re able to help people address those issues and avoid some of the bad results.”

Barr himself grew up in a poor working family, aware of the opportunities that simply weren’t available to him. He wanted to break out of his situation.

“I decided to become a lawyer, ironically, to try and make money,” said Barr.

But then, in law school at the University of Illinois, Barr’s future took shape. He spent a summer at a big law firm and “realized that money didn’t motivate me as much as helping people.”

“I really questioned how fair opportunities were, how much race plays a role in the opportunities people are given, and how much money you have,” said Barr, who’s devoted 10 of his 13-year legal career to Prairie State Legal Services.

Barr’s office in Bloomington helps residents in McLean, Woodford, and Livingston counties. They work with clients who are seeking safe, affordable housing or government benefits, among other needs.

Here in McLean County, Barr says the need is greatest in family court, which handles divorces, custody and visitation issues, and child support. Prairie State has three staff attorneys and 70 volunteer pro bono lawyers who work with clients in family court, but it’s still not enough.

“We still don’t have near the proper amount of resources to deal with the need that’s out there,” Barr told GLT’s Sound Ideas. “There’s a gigantic need.”

Prairie State is funded by the federal government and private groups, including United Way. The organization seeks lawyers and paralegals who are looking to volunteer.

Listen to Barr’s full interview with GLT’s Sound Ideas:

Learn more about Barr’s career and the Chicago Bar Foundation Sun-Times Public Interest Law Fellowship at ChicagoBarFoundation.org.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.