Illinois Judges Association

Pro Bono Spotlight - March 2023

This month, we spotlight a judge who has been dedicated to promoting access to justice throughout his entire legal career:  Judge Michael Fiello. 

Judge Fiello began working at Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation (now Land of Lincoln Legal Aid) as a law student in 1983 while attending law school at the University of Illinois and was one of the co-founders of the Welfare Rights Clinic at the College of Law.  The Clinic provided free representation by law students for recipients of state benefits in their disputes with what was then called the Illinois Department of Public Aid, including representing them at administrative hearings.

After law school, Judge Fiello worked as an attorney for Land of Lincoln from 1984 until 2017, both as a staff attorney and as managing attorney of the Carbondale office, which served 13 counties, and its successor, the Southern Regional Office, which served 23 counties. As part of that job, he ran the southern region pro bono program, which included recruiting attorneys, placing cases and attorney recognition.  In addition, in conjunction with the Carbondale Women’s Center (now the Survivor Empowerment Center), Land of Lincoln offered a pro se divorce class, teaching participants how to represent themselves in a simple divorce case and providing forms for self-represented litigants.

In 1994, Judge Fiello was trained as a mediator and provided pro bono mediation services through the mediation program at the SIU Law School and its successor, the Dispute Resolution Institute, until his appointment as an associate judge in 2017.   He served on the Dispute Resolution Institute board for several years, ending in 2022.

In 2012, Judge Fiello was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court as a commissioner on their Commission on Access to Justice, serving as a commissioner until becoming a judge.  Since 2012, Judge Fiello has served as co-chair of the Commission’s Forms Committee and as chair of the Family Forms Sub-Committee.  The forms committee has been responsible for a wide-range of forms geared to the self-represented litigant, all of which are available on the Court’s website.

Judge Fiello currently serves as the chair of the First Circuit Pro Bono Committee formed by the Public Interest Law Initiative, as a member of the Illinois Supreme Court Statutory Court Fees Task Force, and as the chair of Modernization of Civil Process Task Force.  Additionally, he is the point person for the Jackson County Online Dispute Resolution Project, which will allow defendants in traffic cases to attempt to resolve their cases without having to come to court.

When asked for his comments about the importance of pro bono legal work, Judge Fiello explained: “There is greater activity aimed at increasing access in Illinois now than at any other time in my career.  While we continue to work on making the justice system easier to use for self-represented litigants, a person without a lawyer is still at a significant disadvantage.  Nothing can replace direct legal assistance by a lawyer.  Legal aid organizations do mighty work, but their funding does not even allow them to meet 20% of the need. That is why it is so important for every lawyer to provide pro bono assistance.  The Illinois Supreme Court recognizes this by making one of its goals in its 2022-2025 Strategic Agenda the expansion and promotion of affordable representation and pro bono services for court users. Although it is true that even with 100% participation by Illinois lawyers, we would not meet the need, the good that would be done would be amazing.  There are many causes for the inequality we see in the world, in the United States and in Illinois.  No one person or group will change that.  It is a collective effort.  Be a part of that effort.”

The Pro Bono Committee recognizes Judge Fiello’s never-ending efforts to make the legal system more fair and more accessible for everyone.