Executive Director Al Schwartz celebrates 30 years at CARPLS

May 25, 2023

How does it feel to be celebrating 30 years at CARPLS?

Surprised and grateful. Hard to believe 30 years can sneak up on you, but it did. I was very lucky to find CARPLS. I didn’t understand at the time how much CARPLS would change my life. I developed a real passion for the work and a connection with the incredibly talented and generous community of people who shared that passion. When you love what you do, 30 years can go by pretty quickly. 

What encouraged you to apply for the Executive Director position after being a CARPLS attorney for several years?

Funny story. I didn’t really apply for the position. I was put on the search committee for the new executive director and spent six months working with the board on the job posting and interviewing prospective candidates. We worked our way down to two finalists. To our surprise, both ended up turning us down. When the search committee reconvened, everyone was just looking at me and one of the board members says, “Al, why don’t you just take the job? You were our top pick all along. I have no idea whether that was actually true, but I did know that no one wanted to spend another 6 months on the search committee, so I said yes.

Did you expect to stay this long at CARPLS? If so, what did you see for CARPLS’ future and if not, what influenced your tenure?

I think very few people expect to stay at the same organization for 30 years. The main reason I lasted this long is that CARPLS has never been the same organization. It’s continually evolving. Innovation is part of our DNA and we are never content with anything we do. We are constantly looking for ways to make our services more accessible and more impactful. There is a real creative element involved in the work that you don’t find much in the legal sector. It’s fun being a part of that.

What are some of the major changes you’ve seen at CARPLS at its start in 1993 to present?

Early on, the biggest changes involved the people and the delivery model. CARPLS was one of the first legal aid hotlines in the country, so there was no real blueprint to work from. Originally, it was thought the work could be done by a part-time staff of recent law school graduates who could answer simple legal questions. As it turned out, there are very few simple legal questions and identifying a simple legal question from a more complex legal question takes a high level of skill. So, as CARPLS worked to perfect its legal triage model, we saw the need to hire more experienced, full-time staff. The legal triage model took about 10 years to develop and the core principles of that model have not changed much over the past couple of decades. What has changed is the technology. Looking back, CARPLS was an idea that was way ahead of its time in terms of the available technology. We were very limited in the early days in what we could do in terms of scale, productivity and impact. CARPLS really began to explode as new, more accessible technology came online. A few years ago, we were recognized by American Lawyer magazine as the most cost-effective programs yet devised to provide access to legal services to millions of Americans who can’t afford a lawyer. When that article came out, we knew we were on the right track with our mix of skill, delivery model, and technology. In the past 30 years, CARPLS has gone from a single hotline providing 8,000 legal consultations annually to residents of Cook County to an organization that now provides over 90,000 legal consultations across five separate hotlines serving connected legal aid networks throughout the state of Illinois.

What do you see for CARPLS in the next 5, 10 and 20 years?

That’s a tough one. There have been so many amazing developments within the legal community over the past few years. Changes that I had almost given up hope ever witnessing. When combined with the accelerated evolution of accessible technologies like AI, I can see a real path for achieving a goal that our community has been chasing for decades: equal justice for all. As always, CARPLS will be in the middle of it.

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