Pro Bono, Pro Idaho
U of I Law Graduate Finds Passion for Providing Equal Access to Justice
A transformational education, professional discipline and appreciation for public service work led Jim Cook '92, '95 to his passion: providing low-income Idahoans with equal access to legal services.
Cook's career with Idaho Legal Aid Services (ILAS), where he serves as executive director, has its roots in a law clinic at the University of Idaho.
As a student in the U of I College of Law, Cook enjoyed participating in a law school/ILAS Native American clinic focused on serving Nez Perce tribal members.
“The highlight of the clinic was getting to practice in court and having to think on my feet,” he said. “I also grew up in an upper middle-class household and knew nothing of poverty. It was an eye-opener to me to see the poverty that exists in Idaho and across our nation. That’s partly what led me to my career at ILAS.”
ILAS has served Idaho for 53 years. It is Idaho’s largest nonprofit law firm, providing free services to 4,706 clients in 2019 through its regional offices, not including its advice hotlines and website. ILAS doesn’t charge clients and instead relies on grants and donations to provide services to low-income individuals.
“My coursework at U of I provided me with the fundamentals and the discipline to be an attorney,” Cook said. “My time as a student was transformative for me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Later in my career, I found that I felt more fulfilled by nonprofit work, which drew me back to public service.”
After graduating and working three years in private practice, Cook took a full-time position with ILAS in Boise in 1999.
“Transitioning from private practice was exciting and intimidating,” Cook said. “I went from being more of a researcher and writer to getting assigned a high-conflict domestic violence caseload with constant court time. It was more of a ‘sink or swim’ environment.”
Cook continues sharing his enthusiasm for equal access with his coworkers.
“The nonprofit world creates greater flexibility to work within my passions,” Cook said. “I am passionate about working with low-income clientele, as is everyone I work with at ILAS.”
ILAS recently added services for those needing assistance with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including unemployment claims, evictions, foreclosures and pandemic-related scams.
I am passionate about working with low-income clientele, as is everyone I work with at ILAS. Jim Cook ’92, ’95
ILAS also serves senior citizens, many in failing health who need help from Medicaid to pay for nursing home care or assisted living communities.
“Many of my favorite clients were seniors,” Cook said. “One senior I worked with had served with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression at a camp at French Creek along the Salmon River. My family is from the area and I knew French Creek well, so it was fun to hear his stories and compare his memories to the present day.”
Vandals have a strong presence at ILAS, including lawyers and interns from the College of Law.
“Up to 40% of all ILAS attorneys are Vandals,” Cook said. “I’ve been hiring lawyers and recommending Vandals for years now, and I really do believe that the quality of lawyer from U of I is essentially the same as the ones we’ve hired from the more prestigious schools. Our network of Vandals is unlike any other. If you want to practice law in Idaho, you should probably go to school in Idaho.”
Article by Josh Nishimoto, University Advancement.
Published in the Fall 2020 issue of Here We Have Idaho.