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Three Courtrooms: Chris Welter ’19 at Phillip Brigham, LLC

My boss, Phillip [Phil] Brigham ’97, is a solo practitioner operating in downtown Chicago. The Law Office of Phillip Brigham, LLC handles a variety of cases, but most day to day work consists of criminal defense and family law. His distinctive expertise is International Child Abduction, which you can learn more about here at the bottom of the page.

In a variety of criminal defense cases, Phil works with  populaces in Chicago historically lacking proper legal representation. In doing so, he often represents defendants in cases versus state prosecutors where their liberties are potentially at risk. From his biography at http://www.phillipbrighamlaw.com, “He [Phil while working on his thesis] came face-to-face with the reality that many people who need legal representation don’t get it. This can be because of a lack of access, a lack of finances, or a lack of awareness regarding one’s own rights.” Phil’s principal reason for practicing as an attorney, from what I can see, is not monetary, his focus–rather–is to advocate for the interests of his clients as they navigate the legal process, whether that involves a custody dispute or a criminal proceeding.

My position as a paralegal intern is dynamic. Some weeks I focus entirely on one research project, and some days consist of filing documents and attending multiple court proceedings. Phil is incredibly busy. Aside from his full time job as an attorney, he also coaches a mock-trial team for black law students at Loyola Law School and is a member of the Antioch College Alumni Board. Therefore, I help Phil by researching or completing whatever matter is most pressing in his caseload. There are a lot of administrative duties essential to the operation of a law office as well. So I coordinate mail, greet clients, and run errands too from time to time.

There are three courthouses Phil works out of in Chicago proper: The Richard J. Daley Center, The George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building, and The Domestic Violence Court Building. So far, I have made the most trips to the  George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building on the south-side of the city. However, I have probably spent the most time at The Daley Center observing and assisting in domestic [specifically divorce] cases. On just two occasions, I visited the Centralized Violence Domestic Court. This courthouse deals strictly with domestic violence and orders of protections in Cook County.

 

Centralized Violence Domestic Court of Cook County: Located at 555 West Harrison Street (www.cookcountycourt.org)

The Centralized Domestic Violence Court (CDVC) is the most recently constructed court house and is actually LEED certified.  The most noticeable difference in the court room experience between CDVC and the other two court rooms is the lack of attorneys. A majority of the cases are filed pro-se [on one’s own behalf], thus, the judge is forced to spend time time on most cases explaining the law to plaintiffs and defendants rather than administrating justice. Although I personally appreciate the explanations as the cases became easier to follow, I can imagine it becomes exhausting for the judge.

The experience at each court room is vastly different. From the pictures embedded you can see even the architecture of each building is distinctive. Of the three buildings, The George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building has the most foreboding, or even perhaps, authoritarian presence. The building is located next to the county jail which results in a hearty police presence and barbwire fence scattered throughout the premises.  As you enter the building, church representatives pass out brochures and offer complementary prayer sessions on the steps. 

The Security procedure is intense yet swift. Men and women are swept into respective lines and directed to place all bags onto a conveyor belt while removing metal objects from pockets. The Leighton building is the only court house that does not allow cell phones, so if you bring one, you are sent to the “cell phone coat-check.” In the actual courtroom, the judges, juries, and attorneys are separated from the gallery by bullet proof glass. The judges speak into microphones and talking in the gallery is prohibited. Some defendants appear in front of the judge via the front door at their own will, or through the back door handcuffed and escorted by an officer if they did not post bail. They are facing a range of criminal felonies and misdemeanors. Many of them are assigned public defenders who sometimes have to meet with the defendants in the hallway minutes before speaking to the judge.  The one bizarre, albeit slightly amusing, feature to the George N. Leighton experience are the elementary school classroom tours offered some weekdays. I think it is odd to be giving a tour at a place where people’s lives are changing drastically, but I am sure it is an effective scare tactic to keep them behaved.  

George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building located at 2650 South California on the south side of the city (www.cookcountycourt.org)

The Richard J. Daley Center, on the other hand, is much more grandeur. If the Picasso sculpture isn’t enough, the views from the top floors are breath-taking, even with my sub-par I-Phone photography skills (see featured image). The building is 30 floors tall and has probate, law, and domestic divisions. Judges with seniority get the best real estate on the 30th floor.  Located in the middle of downtown Chicago, the  sleekly dressed lawyers look less exhausted than those at the Criminal Court. The courtrooms are large with “In God We Trust” plastered in gold letters on the walls. Judges speak at a moderate volume sans microphones and there is a Starbucks on the concourse level.  For all its admirable qualities, the Richard J. Daley Center reminded me why courts have a reputation of inefficiency. Cook County has yet to digitize its public records. Thus, the basement of the Daley Center contains rooms full of documents and impatient paralegals. In order to obtain a copy of these said documents, as I found out, you must wait in a line to receive a request form, wait in line to return that request form, wait 30-45 minutes to see the court file, fill out another sheet regarding which documents you want copied, wait in line to return that form, receive a receipt for the copies, wait in the cashier line to pay for the copies, and then wait 3-5 days to come back to the Daley Center to wait in another line to pick-up the copies. In Dupage county (West of Chicago), public records are digitized and accessible by the internet, which makes more sense, but may very well remove the need for thousands of career paralegals.

Picasso in front of Richard J. Daley Center in downtown Chicago (www.cookcountycourt.org)

The evidence of the meaning and impact of Phil’s work, and the assistance I provide, can be best expressed by imagining the situation many of his clients would be in without his legal representation. The confusion and nuance in the cases I have helped work on would be nearly impossible to navigate without the help of an attorney, and even though legal fees are hefty, the time, money, and freedoms that can be lost otherwise could be much worse.

I really wanted to get a foot in the door at a law firm, and I feel like I have achieved that goal. Working with Phil has provided a genuine look at the pros and cons of choosing law as a profession. Specifically, the balance between advocating for the interest of clients and upholding high ethical standards expected from attorneys. During the last 8 weeks I have maintained a list of all the legal jargon I don’t know. Currently my list is at 203 words. With four weeks left in the office, I can’t wait to help Phil with whatever comes across his desk while adding to my list. 

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I am working towards a Bachelor of Science with a concentration in French Language at Antioch College. I was raised north of Columbus, Ohio and remember the Metro Parks and confluent rivers fondly. These memories have created the obligation I feel to protect Ohio's natural resources. I try to understand the complex, yet often interrelated issues that warrant decisive action such as climate change, childhood poverty and homelessness through my education and firsthand experience. In the past two years, I have taught water quality testing to high-school students in West Detroit and currently work as a legal aide for a criminal defense attorney in downtown Chicago.

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