Build It and They Might Not Come

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

Since the days of yore, our courts and larger legal system have centered around a “build it and they will come” model that requires people to come to us on our terms. If you have a dispute, come downtown to the courthouse and they’ll take care of it. And if you have a legal problem, come see one of the many good lawyers out there and you’ll be all set.

This model worked pretty well for literally centuries, and the more centralized system of justice still has an important place in our modern world. But the growing reality today is that most people the system is designed to serve don’t know about, don’t trust, or do not feel connected to our traditional justice system. Finding better ways to connect people in their own communities with legal help and access to the legal process is an increasingly critical part of ensuring equal access to justice going forward.

The Trend Towards Consolidation and Centralization and its Limitations

While the courts, lawyers, and other justice system partners have long been largely centralized in downtown areas, recent trends have seen even more consolidation among key players, including pro bono and legal aid organizations.

This trend is not unique to the legal system; people increasingly choose, when they can, to live and work in downtown areas that are transit friendly, and that cuts across industries. That also has been driven in large part by technology, which as much as it can be a tool to increase access to people in their communities, is also somewhat ironically speeding up this consolidation trend by making physical location less of a factor for many services, including legal services.

Following that trend, with some notable exceptions, pro bono and legal aid organizations increasingly have been consolidating offices in central areas in recent years. And there are good reasons for that trend, as resources can be efficiently concentrated into offices near major courthouses and in downtown locations that are generally accessible via public transit for most residents, and many organizations have expanded their geographic reach beyond their original neighborhood locations.

The consolidation trend has had a lot of benefits, but one of the drawbacks for the courts, and pro bono and legal aid in particular, is a growing disconnect with people in the community. Many people don’t necessarily go downtown very often, or know or trust where they should go if they have a legal problem, and many times they do not even realize they have a legal issue that has a potential legal solution.

Some legal aid organizations are based in the communities they serve. Many others may not have a physical neighborhood presence anymore but have neighborhood partners, hold periodic community clinics, or have broader partnerships with other nonprofits based in one or more communities around the Chicago area.

Technology opens up many new options for various types of remote community services as well, but the “build it and they will come” approach won’t work there either. People need to know and trust the resources we want to point them towards, and that requires community connections too. To truly serve communities in need and the people who live in them requires both authentic partnerships and a more regular physical presence.

It’s Not Just More Lawyers Needed in the Community

More pro bono, legal aid, and affordable private lawyers based in communities—whether they are there permanently, on a regular part-time basis, or through periodic clinics—is just one part of what is needed to better connect to communities.

The other critical piece is building partnerships with neighborhood-based nonprofits and other community-based organizations who can serve as a point of entry for people who may have a legal issue. For example, one of the big lessons from the Circuit Court of Cook County Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program was the critical role that community outreach played in the program’s success.

As I said in a post about the program last year,

Before the program started, awareness and trust in the community in the foreclosure process and the court was quite low. That was reflected in the fact that 90% of homeowners served with foreclosure papers simply defaulted without ever appearing in court.

Thanks primarily to the community-based organization partners, who helped to connect homeowners with the array of free resources available and to build trust that the Court was committed to ensuring fair outcomes, those numbers were turned completely on their head. Not long after the program was up and running, 90% of homeowners in foreclosure were appearing in court and participating in the process.

Bringing community-based organizations into the process as full partners not only helps to build that trust, but it also provides great feedback and guidance for how we can make the system more fair and accessible for people who come into the courts without lawyers.

Similarly, inside the court system we have seen firsthand the difference that student and recent graduate volunteers make through the Illinois JusticeCorps program. JusticeCorps volunteers help thousands of people every year navigate the courthouse, prepare and file court papers, and connect with legal aid and other resources.

Recent Developments Highlight a Growing Disconnect with Communities in Need

The need to redouble efforts to get more legal services and other community connectors into communities in need became even clearer when a community-led advocacy effort earlier this year in Springfield led to substantial state funding for a new access to justice grants program in Illinois.

The new program will fund a mix of community-based legal services and loosely defined “community navigators.” While the CBF and others raised real concerns about the lead organizations in this effort becoming statewide grantmakers and the proposed service models for their program, we recognized that there was a real need for more community-based services and partnerships in the larger pro bono and legal aid system. Their legislative effort ultimately resonated with some legislators and other key stakeholders because of the dearth (both perceived and real) of community-based legal aid and related services in communities throughout the state.

Improved Marketing and Outreach Are One Key Part of the Solution

One key takeaway from that recent state legislative effort was that many legislators, government officials, and community leaders did not have an accurate picture of the pro bono and legal aid system and the critical services these organizations provide in communities throughout the state. In an effort to better understand the state of community based services in the Chicago area today, the CBF has been working with a number of partners to develop a map of existing community pro bono and legal aid services in Cook County.

This effort has underscored that more is happening on this front than most stakeholders realized or could easily point to before, and we need to do a better job of marketing and communicating about the services that already are available in communities. This is not to minimize the need for investment in more community-based legal services; rather, it is to underscore that connecting more people to the services that are available in communities is just as important.

The same goes for the growing array of online legal technology tools, information, and resources. There are some great resources, such as CARPLS and Illinois Legal Aid Online to help people understand and resolve simpler and lower-stakes issues or more routine aspects of their cases on their own, and connect to further legal help when needed. We need to continue to work to increase visibility and access to these resources in communities across Cook County.

A More Balanced Access Solution Going Forward

As we look ahead, we need to balance the efficiencies of downtown locations for the courts and other legal services with credible community connectors to these resources for the public and more community-based legal services models.

As we put more priority on increasing services and bringing the court into the community, we also need to place greater priority on investing in the traditional pro bono and legal aid system, fostering other affordable market-based legal services models, and paying a lot more attention to what happens when people do come into the court system (real or virtual).

Similarly, we need to balance getting more lawyers for people who we know need them with investing in other trusted community partners who can help people connect to these lawyers and other legal resources. Better incorporating these community-based models into the pro bono and legal aid system is essential to the solution.

To really dig into these solutions and identify actionable items, the CBF recently convened a working group of pro bono and legal aid partners that is looking at best practices and good models for community-based legal services and how to best coordinate these efforts.  

At the same time, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice, along with the CBF and other partners, is also looking at how the Court and other justice system partners can better connect to communities through both a new Community Trust Initiative and a special strategic planning process, supported by a grant from the National Center for State Courts through its Justice for All project.

In addition, building on the success of Illinois JusticeCorps, the Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program, and other similar navigator and community outreach models, one of the issues the new CBA/CBF Task Force on the Sustainable Practice of Law & Innovation is looking at is whether and how we can define a “community legal advocate” model to better connect people in their communities to reliable legal information, resources, and assistance.

Chicago Is Not Unique on These Issues

While the CBF is obviously focused on the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois, the disconnect that communities in need are feeling with our justice system goes well beyond our borders. Redoubling efforts to identify solid models and invest in community-based legal services and community connectors needs to become a greater national priority as well. We look forward to working with our national colleagues to identify replicable community service models and help make these services a more prominent part of our collective access to justice efforts throughout the country.