Lawyer/Novelist Makes Gift to Environmental Law Clinic

 A gift made by Jonathan Mills, ’77, as trustee of a charitable trust, will benefit the Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic. To be expended at the discretion of the clinic’s director, the gift provides funds for activities that support the clinic’s mission, which might include obtaining expert consultation, underwriting student travel for site visits and client interactions, and covering other litigation costs.

“The desperately needed solutions to our environmental problems will come from the next generations of environmental lawyers, the best of whom will be trained at the clinic,” Mr. Mills says. “Helping them tackle the problems they’ll confront when they graduate transcends a gift to the Law School. It’s a gift to the future.”

The clinic’s director, Mark Templeton, says, “In the three years since the clinic was founded through the generous support of Jim and Wendy Abrams, clinic students have challenged polluters, held environmental agencies accountable, and advocated for innovative approaches for protecting the environment. Jon’s greatly appreciated gift helps put our students on the front lines of these battles and will give more students the opportunity to develop the practical skills and judgment that they need to be successful environmental advocates—and to win the cases that they have as clinic students today.”

Mr. Mills spent his legal career in Chicago, principally as a partner at Sugar Felsenthal Grais & Hammer. He and his wife, Susan Sneider, moved to South Carolina four years ago after he developed Parkinson’s disease and Chicago winters became intolerable for him. They have three daughters and one grandchild. A former general counsel, Ms. Sneider founded New Vistas Consulting, advising law firms and financial services organizations. She is the author of the American Bar Association publication A Lawyer's Guide to Networking.

Mr. Mills’s first novel, The Ronnie Gene, was published in 2011. It was praised by reviewers as “a gently comic tale of financial malfeasance and murder” that is “sure to delight puzzle lovers.” The protagonists, one of whom has Parkinson’s, have been hailed as “strikingly original sleuths.” He completed the sequel to The Ronnie Gene earlier this year.

How Mr. Mills came to make this gift is a story as quirky as his novel. A client of a law firm where Mr. Mills worked early in his career wanted to leave her estate to such philanthropic organizations as the administrator of her estate deemed worthy. Her attorney, a senior partner in the firm, accordingly prepared a living trust, which would become a charitable trust on her death. She named her attorney the trustee. He also advised her to name a younger successor in the unlikely event that he predeceased her and recommended Mr. Mills. In the ensuing years the woman developed dementia and a neighbor inveigled her into writing a new estate plan that made him the heir to her estate. The Cook County Public Guardian sued, asserting elder abuse. The court voided the new estate plan and reinstated the trust her now-deceased attorney had prepared for her, and Mr. Mills became the trustee.

Before he made this gift, Mr. Mills’s postgraduate connections with the Law School were a few anonymous contributions and a 30-minute digitalization of “home movies” he made during his Law School years.

“The real credit for this gift goes to Dean Schill,” Mr. Mills says, “for directing the development office to reestablish communication with graduates who had grown out of touch. The subject of the trust did come up, but with the caution that it was more likely to be depleted by its settlor’s medical needs than to become a source of philanthropic gifts. But the development office and I kept up a dialog, and a year later I found myself back at the Law School for the first time since graduation, this time as the trustee of a charitable trust delivering a check to Mark Templeton. Which shows that there’s serendipity even in something as seemingly prosaic as law school fundraising—the Law School’s graduates might find themselves surprised by what they can offer the Law School, and the Law School might find itself surprised to receive gifts from unanticipated sources.”