CARPLS Legal Aid’s Emergency Room

CARPLS_MG_2342The phone rings. I answer to a woman frantically telling me that DCFS still hasn’t released her daughter to her care. Her daughter was taken from her pending an investigation of neglected supervision. I have to interrupt her in the midst of her plea to tell her that we do not provide direct legal services at the CBF.

The scenario plays out several times a day. Someone’s fighting an eviction, another is fighting for their child. One person is looking to turn their life around by expunging a record. They can’t afford a lawyer, but they’re clearly in need of legal help. I can’t personally help them, but I give them the legal version of 911. I refer them to CARPLS, Cook County’s free legal aid hotline and one of the many outstanding organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign.

We’re the €˜front door of legal aid’ and the €˜legal aid of last resort,’ said Pat Wrona, CARPLS’ director of legal services, making an analogy to an emergency room.

[pullquote align=”right”]You can’t substitute an attorney in a legal problem. In this age of digital divide, sometimes you just need to talk with someone.[/pullquote]Ideally, CARPLS is the first place someone calls when looking for legal help. CARPLS is able to resolve about 85% of the calls they answer with advice or brief services. With an extensive database and referral system, CARPLS can be the dispatcher for other avenues of help for those callers who require further services. However, it often becomes the place to turn when a person has exhausted all other options. It’s that last minute call saying, I need your help, I have to be in court tomorrow.

Started in 1993, CARPLS was the first legal aid hotline in the country. It recently rebranded and refreshed its image with a logo that reads Everyday Justice. As Pat notes, CARPLS’ work may not involve death penalty cases, but they are real problems that are important to everyday people. The organization serves approximately 50,000 people in Cook County yearly.

The legal system is the glue of our society, said Tanya Pietrkowski, CARPLS’ development director, and there are too many gaps in the legal system.

CARPLS 1Executive Director Al Schwartz admits the organization had previously shied away from marketing its services from a fear of being unable to meet the demand for services (demand here being the number of people who seek legal help, NOT the number of people who need legal help). In order to meet that demand 100,000 people a year CARPLS needed to seek new revenue from individuals and corporations. In a catch-22, CARPLS discovered that no one knew who they were! It was then that the organization changed its communications and marketing tactics, including rebranding.

We’re at the point of embracing the masses, what the clients’ needs are, and how our outcomes impact lives and the community, said Al.

Curious to see what the other side of my phone referrals look like, I visited CARPLS’ office. Central to the office is a gigantic monitor, the visual for the customized phone software that Pat calls the Rolls Royce of phone centers. The display shows the number of agents working and if they are available or on a call. A queue shows the number of people waiting and their average wait time. Once a caller’s wait time has reached 20 minutes, they can leave a message and CARPLS guarantees that an attorney will call back. The success rate, or percentage of connected calls, is perhaps the most impressive statistic. CARPLS current service level on the hotline is 65%.

How does the office field an average of 300-350 calls a day, sometimes up to 500? The staff includes 17 staff attorneys and six supervising attorneys (some Spanish speaking), but the organization also utilizes nearly 200 volunteers a year.

Volunteering at CARPLS differs significantly from other pro bono opportunities. There are day and evening shifts available, and technology lets people work remotely. Since it’s a volume business, pro bono attorneys get gratification from helping many people, but once they clock out, their cases don’t come home with them. CARPLS provides training in family, housing, and consumer law, and expects volunteers to complete 40 hours of service in 12 weeks.

CARPLS 2Technology is one of the most fascinating aspects of CARPLS’ work. Pat shows me what the CARPLS resource database used to look like: a bulky, red binder of papers. The current client software is an extensive database of information sorted by practice areas (13 main subjects), problem categories, problem cases, and 1,700 documented problems. Once the client’s case has been identified, a resource library pops up on the right side of the screen, and it’s filled with brief information, advice, and suggestions for legal and social referrals.

The system allows attorneys to incorporate organic knowledge by adding new subjects and new solutions. It collects feedback from clients to learn which strategies are more effective. It also helps staff spot trends: an increase in foreclosure cases may have someone question, What’s going on with that?

With so much data to work with, CARPLS plans on extracting valuable information to share with the public. One current focus is to educate the public on the social and human impact of its services.

The consequences of legal problems have a community impact, Pat explains. When a person is evicted, what does that mean for the community? Does he become homeless, or turn to a life of crime? I see the law as the ultimate social service, she added.

Despite its deep investments in technology, CARPLS isn’t afraid of technology pushing them out of existence.

You can’t substitute an attorney in a legal problem, noted Tanya. In this age of digital divide, sometimes you just need to talk with someone.