By CARPLS Legal Aid
After months of working closely with us on COVID HELP Illinois, Hanna Kaufman, who is the Counsel for Innovation & Technology at the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (LTF), talked to us about LTF’s state of mind and what she sees as the future of legal aid.
LTF is the largest state-level funder of civil legal aid for the low-income in Illinois. Established as a nonprofit foundation in 1983, LTF makes grants from revenue generated by the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program as well as a legal aid fee assessed on Illinois lawyers as part of the annual attorney registration process. LTF is the only IOLTA fund in the country with an Innovation & Technology Counsel to our knowledge.
COVID HELP (Housing and Economic Loss Prevention) was created by CARPLS and a consortium of other legal aid organizations, through the funding of LTF, as a tsunami of legal troubles was about to hit Illinoisans. Due to the pandemic, low-income and newly impoverished Illinois families have to face life-altering difficulties related to housing, employment, income, debt and loss of a loved one. COVID HELP is a free virtual assistance tool for people in Illinois who are facing these problems because of COVID-19. It’s help available online, all day and every day.
What were LTF’s goals, especially regarding technology, going into the pandemic, and how did they shift?
LTF’s goals of increasing accessibility to legal services have really remained the same—they just became more acute, more urgent, and more in-focus during the pandemic. LTF has had the same vision of shaping Illinois legal services for a long time—trying to make them more accessible to the average person who is facing legal problems.
We’ve known for a long time that technology has been an important way to stretch limited legal aid dollars. It’s simply not possible to hire enough lawyers to work directly with every single person with a legal problem. We had to think about other creative models for delivering legal services so that specialized legal aid lawyers could practice at the top of their game and dedicate themselves to providing legal advice without getting bogged down by answering the same questions over and over again.
For example, we’re huge proponents of things like CARPLS’ IL-AFLAN service, which helps to coordinate services throughout the state by using a hotline service model.
Coordinated service was always something we were interested in pursuing, and one of the biggest forays into that has been Rentervention, which is housed at the Lawyers Committee for Better Housing (LCBH). This service provides legal information and advice to renters throughout Chicago in a conversational way. When people need assistance beyond what Rentervention can provide through its automated interface, there is also a virtual clinic associated with it that serves as an assembly line model of free lawyers who can help further.
Rentervention quickly became a central intake system for LCBH during the pandemic as well as a critical model for the COVID HELP infrastructure. COVID HELP has all of the same automated information at the outset and ties in tools like Rentervention for housing and Benny the unemployment benefits virtual assistant. CARPLS developed Benny and the other virtual assistants that make up COVID HELP with support from the rest of the statewide community. On the back end, COVID HELP also ties into existing systems like Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO)’s statewide online triage and intake system, Rentervention’s virtual clinic, and programs throughout the state, to make sure we’re making use of all of those coordinating systems that already exist and provide them at a statewide level.
LTF has a really strong and longstanding history of supporting technology and innovation. Why is that important to LTF?
One big consequence of the pandemic is that interest rates are now near zero, and they were at a relative high point pre-pandemic. Our income largely depends on interest rates, so we now have fewer funds to provide in the way of general operating support to legal aid programs, and that is a crisis that is happening around the country. Even before we were facing a contraction in our income, we knew we would not be able to provide all the funding that would be necessary in a one-to-one model where each lawyer helps just one person at a time. This is why we’ve been committed to exploring options for scaling legal aid service delivery for so long, and these types of explorations have led to the creation of critical organizations like ILAO and CARPLS alike.
More recently, we’ve invested in pilot programs like Rentervention, Benny, and COVID HELP. ILAO’s online triage and intake system, a statewide tool where visitors to ILAO’s site can apply for services online at 10 different legal aid programs, also falls into this pilot category. Finally, we’ve also supported a program called Upsolve, which was recently named one of the 100 best inventions of 2020 that helps people who are seeking to file bankruptcy petitions for free.
While every state in the country has an IOLTA program, LTF is the only one that has dedicated a full-time staff person to exploring these types of technological opportunities and legal aid’s integration with them.
What can we learn from LTF’s work with COVID HELP for the future?
It’s exciting and impactful because the court and legal system is not designed for regular people—it’s designed for lawyers. If people have a legal issue, especially during the pandemic, they’re going to be scared and unsure of how to proceed. On top of that sense of not knowing where to start is the reality that people aren’t always aware that legal aid is there to help them.
The fact is, legal aid has not done a good job at all of marketing itself, which makes sense because programs are already unable to meet the existing demand, so it’s scary to open doors to even more people.
With online, free services like COVID HELP that provide on-demand information 24/7 at no additional cost-per-user to the legal aid programs maintaining them, so many more people that need this help can access it now. This is a huge departure from how legal aid services have traditionally operated and offers a way forward for us to promote legal services with the confidence that we will actually be able to help all of the people who realize they need it.
Right now, we can accommodate a nearly unlimited amount of users on COVID HELP. Up to 1.7 million people might need help with eviction in Illinois when the moratoria expire. If they were all to come to COVID HELP on the same day, theoretically they could all be helped at the same time. That’s amazing.
It’s great to be a part of a wonderful community in this state that has come together more than ever during this crisis and said ‘we need to collaborate in making sure that people know there is a clear front door for legal answers.’ We should be able to answer their questions in a way that is accessible and does not confuse them further.
Other states are also trying to provide and keep up with changing legal information. It’s incredibly difficult to do. With COVID HELP, the CARPLS team has really taken the lead (with the help of many partner organizations) on developing and maintaining the legal content you see when you visit the site, in addition to directing people to ILAO’s existing in-depth information. CARPLS has really seen how difficult it is to create all of the content that’s necessary, to make it plain language, to translate it into other languages, to keep it up to date as things are rapidly changing in the law, to do all of the technical hosting and updates, to do all the referrals to partners when people need further help.
It’s a heavy lift, and many states don’t have a CARPLS or an ILAO. We’re very lucky to have both in Illinois. We have this broad and deep expertise in helping to coordinate services and reach people through these really streamlined front doors. Having the right people who can do this is key.
In terms of replicability, the technology part is the easiest—it’s really the content creation that is challenging. COVID HELP runs on a very simple program that is low cost and easy to create conversational back-and-forths in the system. But you need all of this legal expertise and people who can dedicate time to translate legalese into easy-to-understand language. You also need user testing and people to incorporate that feedback. It is replicable, but it’s a challenge of who will own it.
We’re so lucky to have the knowledge and resources that we do in Illinois to make sure that people who are struggling right now know where to turn for help. I look forward to the day when everyone in the state knows about COVID HELP, and everyone in the country has access to a similar tool.