'It’s Never Just a Legal Issue—It’s a Human Issue'

To October Pro Bono Volunteer Morgan Gehrls, It’s Important to Also Lend a Sympathetic Ear

Editor's note: The Pro Bono Board, a student group committed to expanding pro bono knowledge and opportunities to students, names a Pro Bono Volunteer of the Month. The winner for October is Morgan Gehrls, ’20Carly Owens, ’20, a member of the board, wrote this story on her work.  For more information on pro bono work, visit the Pro Bono Service Initiative website or contact Nura Maznavi in the Office of Career Services.

Morgan Gehrls, ’20, knew she wanted to get involved in several pro bono opportunities during her first year of law school. Now as a second year, she is continuing this commitment to service by taking on leadership roles.

Gehrls first got involved with the NLG Prisoner Letter Writing as a 1L. This program, which is facilitated by UChicago’s National Lawyers’ Guild (NLG) and partners with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), focuses on providing prisoners with legal advice through the exchange of letters. But it is also about much more, Gehrls found. When attending the weekly workshops she was able to not only learn more about legal research and writing, but also connect with older students and talk to them about law school. Now Gehrls will be running the clinic and hopes to facilitate a space where students have a similar experience to hers. In addition to planning training and providing feedback on students’ letters, Gehrls wants the workshops to be a space where students can learn about public service jobs and other activities in law school.

One of the other opportunities she is particularly excited about is the Legal Observer program also run by NLG.

“Legal observation is highly relevant because we’re entering a period of time where people who don’t normally protest may begin to,” she said.

The Legal Observer program works with the Chicago NLG chapter to monitor protests or marches. The goal is to train students to act as an impartial third party that monitors police interactions with citizens. Gehrls knows how important this can be—when people are arrested at a protest, getting their name and connecting them to legal aid helps ensure they receive proper representation. Gehrls helped monitor a protest that took place when former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon spoke at the University of Chicago, and she plans to be on call for others as they arise.  

Gehrls also helps with telephone intake  for Equip for Equality, a Chicago legal non-profit focused on nondiscrimination for people with disabilities. Through this work, she has learned to balance listening to her clients while also identifying their legal needs.

Many of the clients Gehrls has talked to have legal issues as well as problems not addressed through the legal system. Because of this, she has learned the importance of dealing with the issue as a whole. Sometimes there may be entangled issues such as housing, divorce, and mental illness. Gehrls encourages clients to feel comfortable sharing all aspects. Even if something may not have a legal solution, she hopes to connect them with other resources that can help.

“When clients have issues it’s never just a legal issue,” Gehrls said. “It’s a human issue.”