Growing up on the south side of Chicago as the daughter of first-generation Mexican and German immigrants, Dolores Ayala witnessed the power of advocacy firsthand. Limited by language and education, immigrants like her parents often needed someone to point the way—“to show them the ropes,” Ayala says. Watching her parents, Ayala also came to understand that hard work and education can be great equalizers.
Upon graduating from high school, Ayala was fortunate to receive a scholarship to attend Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. From the beginning of her career, she wanted to use her education to promote equality. She started teaching, pushing her students with the message that education would make the difference in their lives.
Ayala then went on to study law at DePaul College of Law in Chicago. Like many aspiring lawyers, she went to law school with lofty ideals about social justice and public interest. In practice, she became a courtroom litigator at the firm of Schuyler, Roche & Crisham, P.C. (then known as Schuyler, Roche & Zwirner). She took on her first pro bono case at the firm and discovered a passion that she would carry throughout her career. She was excited to put her professional skills into practice to help those who needed, but could not afford, legal services.
Today, she is senior counsel for employment law at Walgreens, the nation’s leading drug store retailer. “My job is to protect the company from liability by ensuring we comply with the employment laws. I also defend the company when charges are brought against it,” she says.
Ayala views her day-to-day work philosophically. For her, it’s all about promoting fairness and equal opportunity. “Whether it’s making sure that we comply with the laws, or seeing to it that policies and rules are fairly applied,” she says, “my job is to help Walgreens live up to its mission of being an equal opportunity employer, where diversity is valued and employees are treated with dignity and
Her pro bono work fits in naturally with that same philosophy. It’s part of Ayala’s long-standing commitment to equal access to justice—particularly for those who cannot get access to it on their own. “Many different sets of circumstances put people at a disadvantage when faced with a legal problem,” she says. “They become intimidated by the legal process. I am privileged to be comfortable with the law. I’m comfortable with legal processes inside courtrooms—and I get real fulfillment when I am able put people at ease and make the process less intimidating.”
Ayala has been able to take her commitment to another level now that Walgreens has joined the ranks of corporations with dedicated legal pro bono programs. Along with co-lead Darin Osmond, Ayala volunteered to get the program underway in the fall of 2013. And thanks to collaborations with several legal agencies in the Chicago area, she and her fellow attorneys now offer their time to a variety of populations in need of
“This work comes naturally to me,” Ayala says of her pro bono commitment. “When you work with people who just don’t have the advantages and privileges that others do, you want to do your part to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
Ayala is passionate about the agencies aligned with Walgreens’s pro bono program. For Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA), for instance, Ayala helps people get a second chance by removing barriers to housing and employment imposed by contact with the criminal justice system. Two other agencies she works with—the Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL) and Equip for Equality (EFE)—work to advance the human and civil rights of the elderly and people with disabilities. Prairie State Legal Services supports low-income people who need help solving serious civil legal problems. And at the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Ayala advocates for human rights protections and access to justice for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Having grown up in an immigrant family, Ayala cites her pro bono work with the NIJC as especially close to her heart. She and other Walgreens attorneys have also volunteered at Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) clinics, helping young people who came to this country as children, who were raised and educated here, and who are “as American as I am, the only difference being that I was born here and they were not,” Ayala says.
“The immigrants I know are hardworking people who want to work, give their children an education, and contribute to society. They are not asking for anything more than an opportunity to carry their weight without fear of deportation,” says Ayala.
Ayala takes her dedication one step further by volunteering as a translator and interpreter in asylum cases for unaccompanied minors from Central America. “There is just a tremendous need right now for legal representation for these kids who have endured horrific abuses and arrive here so alone and so vulnerable,” Ayala says. Working with other pro bono attorneys, she helps tell their stories.
She remembers feeling elated to learn that those for whom she had interpreted for were granted asylum petitions.
But the challenge comes with convincing other in-house attorneys, with full plates of their own, to take on additional work for which they aren’t even compensated. A lot depends on an organization’s leadership, according to Ayala. Many in-house attorneys would like to take on pro bono work but are uncertain about how to begin—and about whether this work is something that would be welcomed in their corporate legal departments.
“People look up to leaders, and if an organization’s leadership supports pro bono work, that sends a powerful message to the lawyers that their work is valued. At Walgreens, we have been very fortunate to have leaders committed to corporate social responsibility and to working pro bono publico—for the public good. This commitment has allowed our attorneys to pursue this very fulfilling work.”