CARBONDALE - It's been 25 years since Paul Matalonis and Mike Fiello became attorneys at the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation's Southern Illinois offices.

Tenures in legal aid don't usually last so long, said Lois Wood, who oversees Land of Lincoln in each of the 65 Illinois counties where it operates. And Matalonis and Fiello, who celebrated their 25th anniversaries earlier this month, aren't even the longest-tenured lawyers at the office.

That distinction goes to Larry Ruemmler, who has been with the agency for 35 years. To have 85 years of legal experience in three longtime employees is as valuable as it is rare, Wood said.

Land of Lincoln helps poor people who are unable to afford legal help in civil matters, but the three attorneys are quick to point out this does not just mean lawsuits.

Family law, housing, custody cases between unmarried couples, women seeking divorce from abusive husbands and orders of protection are examples of the cases that make their way to the Land of Lincoln office, Ruemmler said.

Matalonis, who specializes in housing issues, said a recent survey reported about only 20 percent of the poor have their legal needs represented.

Wood said the inability to meet that demand can cause some legal aid attorneys to burn out.

"There is always a struggle to figure out who needs help the most and who can we help the most," she said. "A lot of people who work in legal aid find it too hard, too stressful, too demanding and leave."

Matalonis said determining who is granted assistance is difficult.

"That's one of the hardest parts of the job," he said, before drawing attention to the pledge of allegiance, which concludes with the words "and justice for all."

"That's why we are here; in an effort to make that real," he said.

Fiello said he's doing the job he's always wanted to do and, for their part, Matalonis and Ruemmler agreed.

"This is what I wanted to do when I got out of law school," Fiello said. "Not everybody gets to do the job they love to do; I do."

For her part, Wood said that attitude is exemplified in the work the three have done in their decades with Land of Lincoln.

"I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of attorneys, but these three really stand out for their dedication, their creativity and the high quality of their work," she said. "That the three would be working together in the same regional office is a tribute to their staying power, their dedication, their complete involvement in working for justice in Southern Illinois."

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