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Building a Tech-Driven Legal Aid Network for the 21st Century

By Guest Author September 29, 2021

By: Al Schwartz, Executive Director, CARPLS Legal Aid

In Illinois, even during “normal” times, there is a shortage of legal help, with only around 450 Legal Aid attorneys for 13 million Illinoisans, of whom 31.6% live in near poverty. And in most civil cases (typically those covering issues of housing, family, and consumer law), people represent themselves because there is generally no right to legal counsel in civil matters.

CARPLS Legal Aid is the largest provider of free legal services in Chicago, and we believe no one should have to deal with their legal issue alone. When you call CARPLS, you are connected directly to an experienced, caring attorney and will receive, at minimum, a free 30-minute consultation that can provide you with answers and next steps. At that point, you might have your solution or you may be referred to a legal services partner specializing in your issue.

This frontline service is absolutely integral to civil legal aid — especially now, when people are physically and emotionally isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, access to justice for people with low and moderate incomes has been a long-standing issue facing vulnerable communities.

Man and child sitting down looking at a tablet
CARPLS Legal Aid is the largest provider of free legal services in Chicago. They believe no one should have to deal with their legal issue alone.

CARPLS started in 1993 and was the first legal aid hotline in the country. We were a small staff (I was the first staff attorney hired) and provided a few thousand consultations over the phone in that first year. Our hotline acted as a clearinghouse to connect anyone seeking legal help with other resources in the legal aid network. It was immediately clear that one phone call could resolve many problems before our clients needed to see an attorney, be referred to one of our partners, or go to court.

In 2013, CARPLS moved its case- and knowledge-management system to a customized version on Salesforce. At the time, Salesforce offered a way for us to create internal efficiencies, integrate our internal systems on the cloud, and create a more efficient tool for our lawyers. From that point on, we began providing 50,000+ consultations annually and increased the number of services we provided each year. It was a seismic shift in the way we approached and delivered services to clients, and it greatly streamlined referrals with our legal service partners. Through Salesforce, we began to build our vision of one legal aid network to help all of Illinois.

It is an understatement to say that the need for legal aid services in Illinois is great. The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched our community in ways that go beyond the devastating health effects, and there have been terrible socioeconomic implications involving unemployment, eviction, debt, and family law issues, to name but a few. These issues will continue to pile up as moratoriums end.

CARPLS and the legal aid community in Chicago and across Illinois are working together to ease some of the legal fallout for vulnerable community members. This has culminated in CARPLS partnering on five projects, four of which are statewide. We first partnered with the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN) in 2017 to bring legal aid to veterans and military service members throughout the state.

Based on the success of this model and with the impetus of the COVID-19 crisis, CARPLS created and partnered with New Leaf Illinois, a statewide cannabis record expungement portal. This created a domino effect for the establishment of other pandemic-era projects at CARPLS and in the legal aid community as a whole. We are also partners with COVID HELP Illinois, an online resource where Illinoisans can access answers to the most common legal questions during the pandemic; Eviction Help Illinois, a statewide hotline for eviction issues; and the Early Resolution Program, a Cook County-led hotline for housing and debt issues.

Three people sitting at a table looking at documents
CARPLS and the legal aid community in Chicago and across Illinois are working together to ease some of the legal fallout for vulnerable community members.

We see ourselves as the center of a hub-and-spoke model for a successful legal aid network in Cook County and expanding throughout Illinois. CARPLS resolves 85% of all client issues in-house with one phone call and refers the remaining 15% to appropriate partners. Our hotline also diverts thousands of client cases away from the overburdened courts each year.

In the 28 years since our inception, CARPLS has learned that reinforcing the removal of barriers to civil legal aid is the first and most important step in modeling legal aid access at a systemic level. Our progress over the last decade is a national model for the way legal and social services can be more interconnected and inclusive in serving clients across many communities through better-coordinated technology.

This principle is especially important for COVID-19-related services that are being administered by most states and municipalities. What CARPLS has achieved in building resources through technology (often with Salesforce’s help) and in partnering with other nonprofits can and should be replicated across Illinois and throughout the United States.

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About the Author

Al Schwartz, Executive Director, CARPLS Legal Aid
Al Schwartz
Executive Director, CARPLS Legal Aid
Allen C. Schwartz has served as the Executive Director of CARPLS since 2003. He graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Law before moving to Chicago in 1991 upon completing his clerkship with Judge Gerald E. Rosen, U.S. Court, Eastern District of Michigan, and worked in private practice before joining CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) as a program director. In 1993, Al was hired as CARPLS’ first staff attorney and answered the first hotline phone call.
CARPLS was the first legal aid hotline in the country and through Al’s leadership and innovation has become the largest and most cost-effective. Al pioneered software that equips CARPLS attorneys to deliver high-quality, fast-paced and customized brief services through more than 60,000 legal consultations annually on any type of legal matter. CARPLS services enable litigants to navigate the justice system much more smoothly and efficiently.