By Nicole NeSmith, Development & Communications Associate at CARPLS
Word around legal aid town is that the birth of CARPLS all started in 1989 with some scribbles on a singular cocktail napkin by a then mid-20-something named Mark Marquardt, current Executive Director of The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. Everyone loves the story, but Mark admits it may be a bit of an urban legend. “I’m not saying it’s true or not, but as far as I know, there is no napkin origin story. I’m afraid this may have been lost to history.” There may not be a cocktail napkin, but there is a December 1991 drawing of a CARPLS referral hub and spoke wheel, courtesy of Terrence M. Murphy, Executive Director of the Chicago Bar Association.
We can confirm that CARPLS’ origin story was bred from countless late nights of colleagues pushing ideas back and forth, without those involved knowing they were placing the stepping stones to 25 years as a significant legal aid presence in Chicago and in the nation.
The idea of CARPLS emerged from some brainstorming that was a byproduct of the Illinois Legal Needs Study, conducted in 1988 and published in 1989. “There was a team of consultants, and we traveled around the state, going into communities, talking to their leaders, social service agency folks, judges, bar leaders, etc.,” Marquardt said. “We wanted to understand how well legal aid was working in these communities. We worked our way up the state and as we got closer to Chicago there was a sense of dread. There were so many legal aid programs. It was a really confusing ecosystem, both for us and for potential clients.”
In the towns where information and referral services existed, people had a clearer understanding of what legal aid could and could not do. Two principles became clear: 1) information and referral services seemed to make a difference where available, and 2) what if they created a mechanism that could coordinate legal services in Cook County?
“The main problem was that nothing like this existed in the country,” Mark said. So in spring 1991, Mark and his LTF predecessor, Ruth Ann Schmitt, jetted out to DC to meet with Wayne Moore, who oversaw AARP hotlines across the country.
“We told him we have this idea to create an information referral service for legal aid programs in Chicago. He said, ‘that’s interesting, but are you going to offer legal advice over the phone?’ We said no. He said “if you do that, you are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and you’re wasting your time.’ So that was a big moment.”
CARPLS’ creation was also due, in part, to a series of conversations with various Chicago legal aid providers. “I have to say that [Ruth Ann Schmitt]…deserves immense credit for her foresight and courage. This was something new and untested.”
For years after the Illinois Legal Needs Study was published, Mark, Ruth, and their colleagues at The Chicago Bar Foundation and the Illinois Bar Foundation were able to step away and let CARPLS take off as its own organization. On May 11, 1993, CARPLS took its first client phone call. “It’s really to the organization’s credit that it did prove itself within the first couple of years so that other legal aid organizations said ‘ok, we get it,’ and they really started to work together,” Mark said.
The Future of Legal Aid and CARPLS
Ultimately, Mark sees the future of legal aid as one where CARPLS continues to inhabit a critical role.
“CARPLS is really intentional and meticulous about examining and analyzing and improving everything it does, to a degree that’s almost unique among not-for-profit service providers,” Mark said. “CARPLS is effective and specifically cost-effective. I think the vision [to make Chicago the first city in the nation to provide anyone with a legal problem access to an attorney] is the right one, but I think it needs to be a collective vision. It will require leadership and take time.”
Mark also describes CARPLS as a master puzzle solver.
“Every now and then, it’s important to step back and look at the delivery system as a whole, look at the pieces of the puzzle, and see how you can fit them in new ways. CARPLS is really good at that,” Mark said. “I think there are a couple things I would hope for in the future. The A in CARPLS [meaning “advice”] has been the emphasis of the first 25 years. The community could benefit from the C in CARPLS [meaning “coordinated”] being the priority going forward. A deeper integration of all the components of the delivery system, that’s what I see. The goal is to make the system more accessible to assisting those that need help. CARPLS is definitely an important part of that continuum.”