By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director
A few weeks ago the congratulations emails started to arrive in my inbox because this month marks my 25th anniversary as a lawyer. The emails weren’t coming from anyone I know, but from people trying to sell me mementos of the occasion.
While I have been very fortunate in my legal career and remain proud to be a lawyer today, I won’t be buying any of that stuff. As anniversaries often are though, it was a time to take stock of what has happened over the time since I took the plunge, and it specifically got me thinking about the trajectory of access to justice since those heady days when I got sworn in. So I thought I’d take a brief break from pontificating about the future of our cause to look back at where we’ve been and what we can learn from that going forward.
The story of Sisyphus from Greek mythology definitely comes to mind as we look back at the trajectory of our cause over the past 25 years. It’s important to understand why, despite many real advances, there is such a persistently large gap between our nation’s ideal of equal access to justice and the reality for the majority of low-income and disadvantaged people, and increasingly the middle class as well. At the same time, we’ve collectively learned a lot about how to move that proverbial boulder up the hill of justice more efficiently and effectively. And both sides of these lessons can serve as a springboard to a better future.
Back in 1991¦.
When I first got sworn in back in January, 1991 and began my career in private practice, I had not given much thought to how we were doing as a profession and as a justice system as far as access to justice goes. It turned out that the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois had done the first statewide legal needs study not long before that and found 80% of people facing civil legal problems were not getting often critical legal help. So the answer was not so good.
Back then, there weren’t as many organizations dedicated to this cause, and overall we had a much smaller pro bono and legal aid system serving the Chicago area. Computers were still something of a novelty in legal practice, and the Internet was a few years out from being ubiquitous in our lives. CARPLS was just coming on the scene as the first central legal aid hotline, a groundbreaking development at that time.
The number of people served by legal aid and organized pro bono programs in Illinois was measured in the tens of thousands then, and the majority of funding came from the federal government. There was no state funding for legal aid (even back in the good old days when we actually had a state budget!), and the legal community’s role was a lot more modest.
To put some context around the resources dedicated to addressing this cause back then, funding for the pro bono and legal aid programs serving Cook County totaled $18.9 million by 1994, which in today’s dollars would be about $30 million. 58% of that funding came from government in 1994, virtually of all of it from the federal government and most of it relatively unrestricted (i.e., programs could use the funds as they saw fit to address what they saw as the greatest needs in the community).
The legal community contributed $1.5 million ($2.4 million in today’s dollars) and with a few notable exceptions like Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and the federal court’s trial bar program, pro bono was more often done on an ad hoc basis by individual lawyers dedicated to the cause rather than through organized efforts.
By the time I reached the midpoint in my career, a lot was changing in both our profession and in the pro bono and legal aid system. In 1999, I made the move from private practice to taking the helm at the CBF, and the dotcom boom was in full swing.
CARPLS was now more established as a hotline, and the early planning was starting around the project that later would become Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO). The idea that people would have access to and use the Internet to get legal information and resources particularly low-income and disadvantage people was considered at best questionable back in 2001 when ILAO was being launched, and it was definitely a groundbreaking idea. It is hard to imagine now when virtually everyone has a smart phone, but back then those were just cell phones and weren’t close to universally available yet.
The pro bono and legal aid system served 103,000 back then, with $36.3 million in total funding ($47 million in today’s dollars). Pro bono was becoming more institutionalized in both the legal aid programs and in the larger law firms and corporate legal departments, and the first full-time pro bono counsel were now present in a few of the largest firms. The legal community was getting more active in financial support for the cause as well, providing about $3 million in contributions along with increasingly more pro bono assistance.
The courts were starting to get more engaged in the efforts to help the growing numbers of people coming to courts on their own as well. The CBF and several partner legal aid organizations were working with the Circuit Court (and later the federal courts and the City’s Department of Administrative Hearings) to develop advice desks to help unrepresented litigants, and these efforts were showing a lot of promise.
The View Today
As I look at the system today, the reality remains that the great majority of low-income and disadvantaged people who need legal help can’t get it, and this is true for a growing percentage of people in the moderate-income category as well. That part is frustrating for sure. At the same time, we’ve made tremendous progress as a community in making legal help more available to more people, with great promise going forward.
The pro bono and legal aid system serving the Chicago area served more than 175,000 people last year, more than triple the number back in the early 1990’s as the system has grown more efficient and effective. Millions more now have access to online information and resources through Illinois Legal Aid Online as well.
Funding for the pro bono and legal aid organizations serving our community today stands at $59.3 million, not quite double the amount back in the early 1990’s in real dollars. The mix has changed quite a bit though. Only 43% of the overall funding comes from government now, and the great majority of that is restricted to specific purposes and often not sustainable over the longer term. The failure of government at all levels to provide adequate funding or to even keep pace with funding from earlier years has been a huge factor in the persistent gap in access to justice. Due to population growth and other demographic trends, many more people are eligible and in need of legal help, exacerbating the chronic underinvestment at the government level.
There is a lot of positive amidst that frustrating trend though. There now is a true continuum of legal information and assistance available for people in need. While it does not yet have the necessary resources to come close to serving everyone in need, people now have access to a range of service options including Illinois Legal Aid Online for information and resources, CARPLS and other programs for advice and brief services, and a network of impressive pro bono and legal aid organizations serving a broad range of legal issues for people who require extended representation and advocacy.
The legal community has really stepped up in its support, both through the CBF and through direct support for the organizations serving our community. In 2015, the legal community provided $14.8 million in financial support for this cause in Cook County along with hundreds of thousands of pro bono hours. Pro bono is now institutionalized among the largest firms and corporate legal departments, and in many small and mid-sized firms and law departments as well, evidenced by the formation of a thriving organization devoted to law firm pro bono, the Association of Pro Bono Counsel.
The courts themselves are doing a lot more to make things better as well. There now is a network of self-help resources, advice desks and court-based pro bono programs in the Circuit Court and in the federal courts. The Illinois Supreme Court has become a national leader through its Commission on Access to Justice and Civil Division of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, which are leading the way in making the court system more user-friendly and accessible for people without lawyers.
More recently there has been a lot more concerted focus on the moderate income segment of our community, with the CBF’s Justice Entrepreneurs Project becoming one of the national leaders in these efforts. A number of other green shoots are starting to appear on the scene as well.
In sum, there are a lot of challenges remaining out there in the quest for justice for all. The commitment from government at all levels to this fundamental American principle remains far short of what is necessary to achieve equal access to justice. And there still is much more that our profession and justice system can and must do to improve access. At the same time, looking back over 25 years there have been impressive innovations and significant progress that underscore that we can make a real difference and ultimately fulfill our nation’s promise. I remain proud to be a lawyer and look forward to working with our amazing legal community and our many other dedicated partners towards that better future.