25 years in public service law have suited Urbana man just fine
CHAMPAIGN — John Lafond is one of those rare people who enjoys being slapped up side the head day after day with perspective.
"Every day I see people getting by with not very much at all. I'm grateful for every little bit of what I've got. It's just an added bonus when you can do something that brings spiritual satisfaction to the material comforts," he said.
Lafond is not a minister or a counselor. He's a lawyer practicing in a niche that few pursue: public service law.
The 52-year-old Urbana man has spent all of his 25-year career with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, advocating in civil matters for those who can't afford a lawyer. For that, he's being honored next month by the Illinois State Bar Association with the first annual Joseph Bartylak Memorial Legal Services Award.
Bartylak, of Alton, was the first executive director of Land of Lincoln and directed the public service agency for nearly 30 years. He died in 2010.
Established in 1972, Land of Lincoln is an Illinois not-for-profit corporation that provides free legal services to low-income and senior citizens in 65 central and southern Illinois counties. Much of its funding comes from the federal government, but it also receives state money. Lafond works in the Champaign office. There are also offices in Carbondale, East St. Louis, Alton and Springfield.
Lafond called Bartylak "our George Washington."
"He was remarkable in so many ways. He would be embarrassed to have this award named for him. I'm feeling even more humility," he said.
Colleagues say Lafond has an exceptional ability to solve problems, has done staff training for them on guardianship issues and created a fact sheet on custody for non-parents.
"John is probably the smartest person I know. You can't find a question he can't answer," said Ramona Sullivan, a fellow Land of Lincoln attorney in Champaign who nominated Lafond for the award.
"I call him Encyclopedia John. Whenever I'm thinking about a new issue to try to figure out how it fits within a more general context, I go to him," said Valerie McWilliams, a 28-year Land of Lincoln staff attorney.
Both women agree that Lafond's sense of humor is one of his finer attributes.
"You won't find a funnier person. Any event, any time there needs to be entertainment, John is the go-to guy," said Sullivan.
A 1986 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law, Lafond knew he wanted to practice public service law long before graduation. His father might have had an influence.
"Dad was an accountant, a principled man who, a lot of times, fired his bosses," said Lafond, whose family moved from southern California to Illinois when he was in junior high school.
"Our family was broke for some years, and I was definitely broke when I got out of college," he said.
With an undergraduate degree in rhetoric and a yen to help others, public service law was a natural. He worked in a welfare rights clinic while in law school and realized he preferred the hands-on experience to the classroom. Still, he passed the bar exam on his first try.
After college, he spent about nine months in construction and making pizzas before landing his position with Land of Lincoln.
While it's not the kind of law office where clients can expect to be offered a Perrier or a Danish pastry or see their lawyers driving BMWs, Land of Lincoln has provided a decent living for its attorneys, Lafond said.
"I don't begrudge their grace in paying me. We may not be as well paid as some, but it's not like we're poorly paid. Every few years, there are retrenchments," he said.
Retrenchment. That's a euphemism Lafond uses frequently to describe the career chaos that comes with funding cuts and reorganization. It was a retrenchment that put him in the post he's held in the office for the last five years.
Lafond answers what Sullivan refers to as "the bat phone" — the Legal Advice and Referral Center — a first call for help from callers in all 65 counties served by Land of Lincoln.
"It all comes to me," Lafond said. "I am the ultimate generalist because I talk to everybody about everything."
And while he can field just about any inquiry, McWilliams said, Lafond has a "special place in his heart" for the elderly, people with mental illness, and families who have someone with developmental disabilities.
Having spent eight years visiting his late grandfather in a Champaign nursing home softened him to the needs of the aging. Those include problems related to incapacity, financial exploitation, physical abuse, guardianships, surrogate decision-making and Medicaid. Even divorce is more complicated if you're old, he said.
The birth of his "first and one and only" daughter, Colleen, now 9, added even more perspective to his knowledge base. "Leenie," as John and Alice Lafond call their baby, has Down syndrome.
"She's in special ed classes. That's one of my developing areas of expertise. We are discovering what she is able to do," Lafond said. "We are happy to have her. She makes our life a joy."
Lafond said his wife of almost 11 years is much like him in that they both have "this motivation and passion to serve."
A clerk at the Illini Union Hotel, Alice Lafond recently was given the Chancellor's Distinguished Staff Award. Being at the front desk of the building that welcomes folks to the University of Illinois, Alice Lafond, like her husband, also has to answer all kinds of questions.
Their daughter has become their focus when they're not working.
A long-distance runner from about the age of 30 to 40, Lafond had to give that up when he developed arthritis in his feet. He loved running 5K races the most but managed to finish a whole marathon (26.2 miles) once.
"I did cry for relief," he admitted of the concurrent feelings of elation and misery.
He compares that feat with the challenges facing his clients and his colleagues in public service law.
"That's an illustration of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. You put your heart into it, and you do what doesn't seem possible to do," he said.
Despite the popularity of lawyer-bashing, Lafond said it's inherently a difficult line of work because "it's almost always about a conflict."
"As much as you might hate (lawyers), it's the medicine for living in a human society."