40 Under Forty Feature – Jess Bednarz

Interviewed By: Kenny Matuszewski

Now celebrating its 21st Anniversary, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin’s 40 Under Forty recognizes rising stars in the legal community. Past winners come from all practice areas and settings, including the government, private practice, and in-house. The one thing they all share is their commitment to excellence and dedication to the legal profession.

Attorneys who win the 40 Under Forty award join an elite group of practitioners who have reached the highest echelons of the profession. Their accomplishments have also fully cemented them as members of the profession. However, for several years, Jess Bednarz felt she did not belong. It started in law school, when her classmates took more traditional paths. After law school, it included leaving private practice and running up against brick walls at times when she tried to innovate the profession. As a result, when Jess learned she won the 40 Under Forty award she was both honored and shocked. While she had a vague understanding of how the process worked, she never thought she would win, since winners traditionally do not come from the Access to Justice community. However, she honed her skills at the Chicago Bar Foundation (“CBF”) which has a long tradition of excellence. The organization has several past winners of the 40 Under Forty award, including Samira Nazem (a 2019 winner), Bob Glaves, Kelly Tautges, and Dina Merrell.

One reason why Jess felt she never fit in was due to the unconventional start of her career. Jess did not have any lawyers in her family, so she was first exposed to the profession and the law firm business model when she worked as a law clerk at a few firms during law school. After graduating from DePaul University College of Law in 2009, Jess wanted to work at a family law firm. However, the recession made it incredibly difficult to find a job. Professor Susan Haddad, one of Jess’ law school professors and mentors, encouraged her to open her own firm and take on some cases to gain experience, even if she wanted to work elsewhere. However, Jess would not be working alone. Professor Haddad not only allowed Jess to use her office space, but also ensured Jess could ask her for advice at any time.

A few years later, Jess had the opportunity to join a law firm. While she knew that working at a law firm as an attorney would differ from her law clerk experience, Jess ultimately found that working in litigation was not for her. While she could handle the tumultuous conflicts of family law, she realized that she preferred helping people navigate litigation as painlessly as possible. This realization gave Jess pause. Family law was her dream practice area, and she had not been interested in any other practice during law school. While Jess realized she needed to do something different in law, she did not know what that was right away.

After exploring both legal and non-legal positions, Jess became the Chicago Bar Association’s (“CBA”) MCLE Coordinator. Involved in the Young Lawyers Section at the time, Jess realized that working at the CBA would give her plenty of opportunities to network and determine her career path. That bar year, she attended every CBA event that she could and volunteered as much as possible. Due to her work and service within the CBA, Jess won one of the YLS’ most prestigious awards: The Rising Star Award for a Leader with Exceptional Promise. The award put her in good company with several of Chicago’s most prominent members of the legal community, and showed that no matter which path Jess chose, she would excel. 

Jess first learned about the CBF while she worked at the CBA. During one of the CBA’s Annual Meetings, Jess sat at a table with Bob Glaves, the CBF’s Executive Director. Bob Glaves would soon become Jess’ biggest mentor. He not only gave Jess her first job at the CBF, but also taught her everything she needed to know about the Access to Justice community. She found that the CBF was a perfect fit for her, since she not only loved her work, but also her colleagues.

However, like all non-profits, the CBF faced funding and capacity challenges. However, the lack of resources did not phase Jess. She realized that this was not a unique problem, since many smaller law firms and government offices faced similar challenges. Her experiences in private practice, both as a solo practitioner and as an Associate at a small family law firm, trained her well for working in a non-profit.

Jess worked at the CBF until she moved to Colorado in 2015. At first, Jess was able to work at the CBF remotely, but the organization eventually told her that they needed to hire someone locally. She then worked at the Colorado Bar Association, but once her contract expired there, Jess struggled to find a job. She soon found that Denver not only had fewer legal jobs available than Chicago, but also a much smaller Access to Justice Community. After much thought, Jess moved back to Chicago, after realizing that her network was located there, and had more opportunities in the legal profession.

When she moved back, Jess needed to decide how to make money until she found a new job. During her time in Colorado, Jess learned about conscious capitalism. Under conscious capitalism, businesses operate ethically by serving the interests of all stakeholders involved—not just corporate management and shareholders. At the time, Whole Foods was one of the leading companies in the conscious capitalism movement, so Jess decided to work there, in order to see how it was implemented. After seeing the pride Whole Foods took in its customer service and work culture, Jess soon wondered how conscious capitalism could be applied in the legal profession. In the past, law firms have been lawyer centric and have not given much thought to firm culture.  However, the modern practice of law, Jess realized, needed to be client centric and law firms needed to rethink their firm culture, or lack thereof, in order to create more sustainable work environments for their employees. Jess soon found her mission: to help law firms empower clients and create more sustainable work environments.

During this time, the CBF re-hired Jess to work with the Justice Entrepreneurs’ Project (“JEP”). The JEP is a small business incubator that helps attorneys launch innovate and socially conscious law firms targeting low- and middle-income people and small businesses. The 18-month program gives participants training, mentoring, free or discounted technology services, and office space. JEP participants come from diverse backgrounds and practice in a variety of consumer and small business facing areas, including family law, immigration, housing, probate, and even intellectual property. About 65 people have graduated from the program so far and found success outside the JEP environment.  

Over the years, Jess has helped refine the JEP. For example, she has updated the curriculum. While the JEP’s primary focus is to launch a law practice, Jess recently realized that earlier participants’ firms have grown significantly since they graduated from the program. No longer are these attorneys in the survival phase of starting a business; they are looking to grow. To address this, Jess and her JEP team members have developed training programs that teach attorneys how to grow a law firm. Similar to how law firms evolve and grow over time, so too has the JEP, thanks to Jess, her fellow JEP team members and others who have come before them.

The JEP has also turned the legal profession’s referral system on its head. At first, CARPLS and other legal aid organizations referred clients whose incomes were too high for pro bono service to the JEP. This changed when Jess discovered and decided to partner with the organization Afterpattern, formerly known as Community.lawyer. A socially conscious company from Brooklyn, Afterpattern offers many services, such as its Lawyer Referral Platform. Now, in addition to connecting legal consumers with JEP attorneys through partner organizations such as CARPLS, the Lawyer Referral Platform empowers clients to hire attorneys directly, which has only benefited JEP attorneys. Always finding ways to improve existing services, the JEP team is now creating web pages on the Lawyer Referral Platform for Spanish-speaking clients and highlighting JEP firms with Spanish-speaking attorneys and staff.

In addition to her duties at the JEP, Jess is also the CBF’s Director of Innovation. As the Director of Innovation, Jess leads the CBA/CBF Task Force on the Sustainable Practice of Law and Innovation (“Task Force”). The Task Force works to create a better future for the legal profession, the public, and the justice system. It does so by researching and analyzing the current problems facing the consumer and small business legal services markets and determining the appropriate regulatory reform measures.  The Task Force’s most recent proposal was submitted to the Illinois Supreme Court in October 2020 and is currently pending.

Jess’ work as the Director of Innovation also dovetails with her JEP work. For example, at the JEP, Jess helps participant firms set prices for clients upfront, leverage technology, and unbundle legal services whenever possible. When she is not busy with her work at the CBF, Jess helps others innovate the practice of law. For example, Jess helped the state of Colorado launch its Legal Entrepreneurs for Justice incubator program, and even served as the organization’s first Executive Director.

In July 2019, Jess’s friend Lauren invited her to attend a personal development conference. The conference would change Jess’ life, since it finally gave her the ability to set aside time to focus on her goals. During the conference, she realized that very few of the attendees were lawyers. Realizing how much the legal profession could benefit from a personal development workshop, Jess and Lauren decided to create one themselves.

In January 2020, Jess and Lauren founded the On Purpose Legal Workshop (“OPLW”). OPLW helps members of the legal profession find their purpose in the profession and build careers centered around that purpose. In other words, it helps attorneys determine where they best fit in the profession. The first conference was held in Denver, with attendees from all over the state. The second iteration of the conference was held a few weeks ago and took place virtually. Jess and Lauren then founded the On Purpose Legal Network (“OPLN”), in order to provide OPLW attendees and other legal professionals in other parts of the country looking to define their own version of success opportunities to connect and learn from each other.

The mentoring occurring through OPLN sums up Jess’ philosophy on mentoring. Online forums have made it easy to connect with and crowdsource ideas from colleagues across the country. Realizing that the traditional apprenticeship model is virtually nonexistent in the modern practice of law and inapplicable to her practice setting, Jess has taken bits and pieces of advice from colleagues across the country and used it for her personal growth, as well as the growth of the JEP.

Additionally, Jess has found that mentoring relationships do not always have to include a more experienced practitioner teaching the practice of law to someone less experienced. For example, Jess and Lauren bounce ideas each off each other, so they can figure out how to best run their respective incubator programs. While informal in nature, Jess and Lauren are still mentoring each other and helping each other succeed. Jess thinks that young lawyers would also benefit from these forms of mentoring, since the Internet has leveled the playing field for everyone, and because there’s always something to learn from everyone you meet.

Looking forward, Jess hopes that the profession will continue to use technology to appear remotely in court once the pandemic ends. This is because virtual appearances for status hearings and certain motions reduces the cost of legal services, which, in turn, helps clients save money. In addition, Jess also thinks that legal workspaces should continue to offer flexibility with remote work, in order to increase attorneys’ well-being. Finally, she would like the courts to standardize procedures and documents across the state. Doing so would demystify litigation for the general public and give them confidence to navigate the courts.

Finally, when asked what she would tell a younger version of herself, Jess said that no matter what, she belongs in the legal profession. But even more than belonging, Jess realized that her unique skillset was absolutely necessary to succeed. That skillset, combined with a sense of purpose, allows attorneys to thrive. If attorneys have that, and are their true, authentic selves, Jess found that the rest will take care of itself.

Jessica Bednarz is the Director of Innovation & the JEP for the CBF. Jessica directs special projects to advance innovation in the practice of law, including the CBA/CBF Task Force on the Sustainable Practice of Law & Innovation. Jessica is also responsible for leading and overseeing all activities of the Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP), a small business incubator for lawyers to start their own socially conscious and innovative law firms targeting low- and middle-income people and small businesses.  Jessica earned her law degree from DePaul University College of Law, where she graduated cum laude and earned a Family Law Certificate. She is originally from Fishers, Indiana and graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business. In her free time, she enjoys exploring different parts of the U.S. and world. She is also the Co-Founder of On Purpose Legal NetworkOn Purpose Legal Workshop and A Different Practice.

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