Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois has been thinking about this question for more than 30 years.  Often, the answer involves legaltech.

On the outside chance that the afterlife involves a meeting with St. Peter at the Pearly gates, those working for the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (LTF) will have good story to tell.  Over the organization’s 36-year history, LTF’s leaders and staff members have demonstrated a combination of stewardship, creativity and courage that is inspiring to anyone who wants the law to work for all people, including society’s most vulnerable populations.

Today’s post is a highlights reel of this remarkable organization.

What is the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois?

LTF is Illinois’s largest state-based funder of legal aid, with money coming from interest on lawyers’ IOLTA accounts and an annual $95 assessment on every Illinois-licensed attorney. Since its founding in 1983, LTF has provided approximately $160 million in grants and operating funds to numerous Illinois-based legal aid organizations.  Although this might sounds like a lot of money, demand for legal aid far exceeds available funding. See, e.g.,  “The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans,” (LSC 2017) (legal aid is available for only 1 in 5 low-income people in need). Fortunately, LTF has a long track record of finding innovative ways to multiply the impact of these finite dollars.

The graphic above is an amalgam of organizations and projects that LTF has funded over the last 30+ years.

Mark Marquardt

LTF’s Executive Director, Mark Marquardt, has been know to say, “I work for a nonprofit, but I don’t actually help people.”  Marquardt’s comment reflects the immense respect he holds for the hundreds of lawyers who do the emotionally taxing work that his organization is able to fund.  In lieu of directly helping people, Marquardt and his four full-time staffers try to earn their keep by efficiently gathering IOLTA funds, disbursing and administering grants, and otherwise engaging in systems thinking, including root cause analysis, what’s working elsewhere, vetting new technology, measuring impact, and overall funding optimization.

An approach based on facts and impact

Marquardt credits his predecessor, Ruth Ann Schmitt, with an approach to funding that focused on facts and finding new ways to increase impact.

According to Marquardt, Schmitt’s perspective was shaped during the early years of her LTF tenure when the organization struggled to create a stable source of funding.  LTF came into existence in 1983 in response to a 25% cut in funding to the Legal Services Corporations (from $381 million to $241 million). Under Schmitt’s leadership, between 1984 and 1990, LTF funding from IOLTA accounts increased from $100,000 to $2.5 million.

(a) 1989 Illinois Legal Needs Study

With this improved financial stability, Schmitt made it a priority to obtain a more in-depth view of the problems she was trying to solve.  Thus, with support from her colleagues from the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) and the Chicago Bar Association (CBA), Schmitt served as Program Director for the newly launched Illinois Legal Needs Study, which was the first statewide needs assessment and one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the country. Having recently graduated with a history degree from Northwestern University, Marquardt joined as Project Coordinator.

The Illinois Legal Needs Study had three major objectives:

  1. To quantify the legal needs of the poor throughout the state.
  2. To inventory the existing civil legal assistance resources available throughout the state, and to identify any gaps in services.
  3. To develop a set of recommendations to address the unmet needs of the poor.

The final report was an amazing compendium of facts and figures that documented the enormous gap between needs and resources.  The report estimated that approximately 300,000 low-income households in the state of Illinois experienced an estimated 3.54 distinct civil legal problems for which they had no legal help. The most common types of unmet legal need were public benefits (16.3%), problems related to housing (15.7%), family law (10%), consumer matters (14.7%), utilities (13.4%), and healthcare (13.7%).

One of the biggest impediments to legal aid, affecting 43% of all low-income household, was lack of awareness of legal aid resources.  A second major impediment was the complexity of navigating a legal system designed for lawyers and judges rather than citizens. A third major impediment was geography, particularly in rural areas where the nearest legal aid organization may be several counties away. A fourth major impediment was the needs of special population groups, including people with disabilities, immigrants, migrant workers, the mentally ill, the elderly, homeless people, the incarcerated, victims of domestic violence, and people with language barriers.

In addition to the final report, the Illinois Legal Needs Study included a shorter Plan for Action that outlined steps to be taken by various stakeholders, including funders. According Marquardt, that document was instrumental in setting LTF priorities throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

(b) Computerizing legal aid offices

One of the recommendations in the Plan for Action was for Illinois legal aid organizations “to increase the use of office technology to improve efficiency.”

IBM Selectric

During his months of field work in legal aid offices throughout the state, Marquardt recalls tremendous unevenness in the use of technology.  “Occasionally you’d walk into a legal aid office and you’d see a lawyer typing away on a Commodore computer, which he likely brought in from home. But in most cases, the IBM Selectric was the state-of-the-art technology for those working in legal aid, which meant that all documents were constantly being recreated from scratch.”

Starting in 1990, LTF began conditioning some of their funding on the upgrade of office equipment, including desktop computer for use by lawyers. Not all legal aid organizations, however, were onboard with the change.

Marquardt tells the story of a computer technician going to a LTF-funded legal aid office to set up a new computer.  Upon his arrival, he asks one of the senior attorneys, “Where do you want this?” The senior attorney replies, “Over there, in the corner.”  Puzzled by the request, the computer guy says, “But if we put it there, you won’t be able to use it.”  To which the attorney quipped, “That’s right, because I’m a lawyer, not a travel agent.”

Marquardt gives Schmitt credit not only for her vision but also her willingness to be directive. “The legal aid organizations would say, ‘Just give us the money. We know what to do with it.  We’ll hire more lawyers and more staff.'”  But Schmitt knew that unless lawyers leveraged technology to increase their own productivity, fewer overall clients would be served. “I admire her courage in pressing ahead. It wasn’t easy.”

According to Marquardt, the biggest accelerator of computerization was shrinking budgets for clerical support. “When that happened, the lawyers had to type their own pleadings. Thus, they were very happy to have their own computers.”

(c) Coordinated Advice & Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS)

Another Plan for Action recommendation was for legal aid programs in the Chicago metropolitan area to “formalize the process of coordination, cooperation, and planning for the effective delivery of legal services.”  In 1993, the leadership of LTF followed through by funding the creation of CARPLS, which became nation’s first legal aid hotline.

Marquardt recently recalled the origins of CARPLS, tracing it back to the team of consultants who worked on the Illinois Legal Needs Study. “[W]e traveled around the state, going into communities, talking to their leaders, social service agency folks, judges, bar leaders, etc.  We wanted to understand how well legal aid was working in these communities. We worked our way up the state and as we got closer to Chicago there was a sense of dread. There were so many legal aid programs. It was a really confusing ecosystem, both for us and for potential clients.” See A CARPLS History Lesson With Mark Marquardt, CARPLS, Feb. 1, 2019.

By this time, the data from Illinois Legal Needs Study made clear that, when available, information and referral services usually had a significant impact on their communities. Yet, bringing these benefits to Chicago and Cook County were especially daunting, as size and diversity of need was much more complicated than any other part of the state.

“The main problem,” recalls Marquardt, “was that nothing like this existed in the country.”  Thus, in the spring of 1991, Schmitt and Marquardt traveled to Washington, DC to consult with administrators who were running hotlines for the AARP. Upon their return, they worked with Chicago Bar Foundation and the Illinois Bar Foundation to create an organization that could raise awareness and better allocate limited resources.  On May 11, 1993, CARPLS took its first client phone call. See id.

Although originally conceived as a triage and referral service for Chicagoland legal aid organizations, the CARPLS staff soon realized that available referral resources were completely inadequate to handle the enormous volume of callers with significant legal need and an inability to pay. Thus, shortly after forming, CARPLS became what it is today: a standalone service that provides over-the-phone legal advice to low- and moderate-income individuals.

[click to enlarge]
Although CARPLS provides legal advice over the phone, it does not does offer any in-court representations.  Yet, this limitation on services has not been a barrier to good results, as CARPLS is able to resolve a remarkable 85% of aid-eligible inquiries.  This is made possible by a state-of-the-art knowledge management system built out over time that enables CARPLS staff attorneys to answer questions in 1871 difference legal topics, from adoption to zoning.

Since the mid-1990s, CARPLS has also staffed a self-help desk in the basement of the Cook County Courthouse.  On any given day, between eight and ten CARPLS staff attorneys meet with clients to help them solve their legal problems, including explaining the law, document preparation, and coaching of self-represented litigants.

CARPLS’s focus on legal advice rather legal representation has resulted in remarkable record of efficiency and coverage that has served as a model for other large urban legal aid organizations. Looking back at what LTF helped create, Mark Marquardt observes, “Every now and then, it’s important to step back and look at the delivery system as a whole, look at the pieces of the puzzle, and see how you can fit them together. CARPLS is really good at that.” Id.

(d) Illinois Legal Aid Online

When the Plan for Action was published in 1989, the legal aid community was beginning to grasp the benefits of self-help materials as a way to serve a wider swath of low- and moderate-income people.  Thus, the Plan urged Illinois legal aid organizations to expand the use of “printed self-help materials.”

Although this was a wise and prudent recommendation, the rise of the Internet a few years later opened up a new frontier to help ordinary people gain the information they needed to resolve their legal problem.  With leadership and financial funding from LTF along with the Chicago Bar Foundation and the Chicago-Kent College of Law, the result was the creation of Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILOA).

During the first nine months of its existence, Lisa Colpoys (formerly a staff attorney and Program Director at CARPLS) was ILAO’s sole content manager and John Mayer of Chicago-Kent/CALI served as ILAO’s part-time chief technology officer.  Shortly thereafter, Colpoys was promoted to Executive Director and promptly hired two content managers to continue the daunting task of simplifying the law so that it was accessible and intelligible to all people, including those with low incomes. By 2005, ILAO was incorporated as its own independent nonprofit. In turn, Colpoys and her staff started making heavy use of the AJ2 Author technology produced by Mayer and his team at CALI.

Today, ILAO provides comprehensive online information and resources to legal aid advocates, pro bono attorneys, and members of the public seeking legal assistance.  These resources include:

As of the first quarter 2019, ILAO is on pace to host 3 million unique users for the year and 4 million user sessions.

According to Colpoys, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois has been ILAO’s single largest source of operating funds, in most year accounting for nearly 50% of the organization’s total budget.  Why has LTF been so generous? The most obvious answer is results. Over the last 15 years, ILAO has emerged as a nationally recognized leader in the use of technology to deliver legal services.  ILAO’s industry awards include:

  • Technology Leadership Award, presented by Accenture and Lumity (2006)
  • Louis Brown Award for Legal Access (Meritorious Recognition), presented by the American Bar Association (2010)
  • Paul H. Chapman Award (for significant contribution to the improvement of justice in America), presented by The Foundation for Improvement of Justice (2010)
  • Public Interest Partner Award – IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law (2011)
  • Connection Award – LivePerson Software (2012)
  • Pro Bono Partnership Award – John Deere Global Legal Services Group (2012)
  • Technology Innovations Award – Law Technology News (2013)

The next generation of LTF leadership

In 2015, when Mark Marquardt was promoted to Executive Director of LTF. he had the benefit of intimately understanding the successes of one of the nation’s most influential and dynamic legal aid funders.  Arguably, the guiding principle of the prior 25 years had been stewardship, with Schmitt and Marquardt investing in ideas and organizations that showed the most promise for Illinois’s low- and moderate-income populations.

With the changing of the guard, Marquardt reflected upon LTF’s biggest successes.  With the benefit of hindsight, it was not hard to see that the really big wins came from investments in innovation and technology. Further, Illinois and LTF had unwittingly become one of the first movers in the legal aid space — a rare innovator who was also an opinion leader for other members of the social system.

Hanna Kaufman

Wanting to better leverage what appeared to be working, Marquardt decided to do away with his old role as deputy executive director and instead create a new position called Counsel for Innovation & Technology.

How this job got filled is an object lesson in the importance of showing up.  During her 2L law school at Chicago-Kent, Hanna Kaufman enrolled in Ron Staudt’s highly influential Justice and Technology Practicum, which that year included an opportunity to volunteer for a symposium on law and the future.  “Because I loved the class and loved the topic, I was happy to volunteer,” recalls Kaufman. “One of the sessions was a roundtable on using technology to improve access to justice, which was my passion.  So I showed up. Then, as the only student in the room, the participants cajoled me to speak up. That’s how I met Mark Marquardt. He was impressed with my interest in the topic.”

After Kaufman graduated, she went to work for a company focused on ADR.  Nonetheless, she stayed in touch with Marquardt, who let her know about a new position he was creating that would be focused in innovation and technology for legal aid organizations. When the position was officially open, Marquardt persuaded Kaufman applied. Shortly thereafter, she was hired.

According to Marquardt, “95% of LTF’s budget will continue to be devoted to direct legal aid funding.  But approximately 5% are going to be strategic initiatives where we are going to make investments with an eye toward improving what we can do in the future. Hanna’s job is to identify and oversee the most promising opportunities.”

One recent example is financial support to UpSolve, a new nonprofit start-up organization founded at Harvard Law School’s Access of Justice Lab. UpSolve provides user-friendly software to help low-income people complete the forms necessary for Chapter 7 bankruptcies. The LTF funds will be used to hire a full-time, Illinois-based attorney to review bankruptcies form, answer client questions, and collaborate with other nonprofits in the area. They’ll also be used to adapt the Upsolve system to the Northern District of Illinois local rule, forms, and exemptions.

Another initiative shepherded by Kaufman is Reintervention, a chatbot technology focused on the private-market landlord/tenant matters in Chicago. The purpose of Rentervention is the creation of a single vertically integrated path that combines automated guidance (chatbot technology, document automation, and AI-based workflow tools) with human interventions (telephone calls, clinics, limited-scope assistance, and referrals to legal aid or pro bono lawyers). Thus, rather than going from agency to agency to obtain help, the user has one starting point – accessible by smartphone, tablet, or computer – to guide them to appropriate resources. Because the marginal cost for each additional user is very close to zero, Rentervention can be widely promoted and accommodate an almost unlimited number of interactions. Development partners include ILAO, Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, and Theory & Principle, a the legal software development firm founded by legal innovator Nicole Bradick.

Rentervention is now entering its soft launch.  This 1-minute video give a snappy overview of how it works.

LTF’s support of IFLP

In this post, I’ve expended 2,500+ words to describe the history and activities of the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, which is, by any reasonable measure, a high-impact nonprofit organization.  Yet, what I find very humbling and heartening is that for fiscal year 2019, the Institute for the Future of Law Practice managed to make the cut for LTF funding.

Next month, LTF will fund eight mid-career legal aid lawyers to come to the Chicago to participate in the IFLP 3-week boot camp at Northwestern Law.  The grant proposal was spearheaded by IFLP’s Program Director, Lisa Colpoys, who, as chronicled aboved, worked as a legal aid lawyer and administrator at two LTF-funded organizations. As I have often joked, IFLP got formed after Henderson, Bill Mooz and Dan Linna had the foolish, impetuous thought of starting a nonprofit. But IFLP got moving when Colpoys, a tech-savvy lawyer and seasoned legal nonprofit executive, fell from the sky looking for yet another mission-based organization that she could help build for scratch.

in our earliest planning sessions for IFLP, Colpoys made the persuasive case that access to justice and the world of legal aid was converging on the same skill set as the legal operations movement — data, process, design thinking, technology, and return on investment. This was proven out in our ability to attract several public interest employers to hire rising 2L and 3L students who completed the IFLP bootcamps. See Graphic from Post 078 (listing employers by sector).

Yet, the most striking parallelism between legal aid and legal ops is the similarity between Mark Marquardt and any sophisticated law firm and legal department leader who is trying to nudge along productive change.  Foremost, Marquardt sees the world through the eyes of the legal aid worker, whom he describes as inherently cautious people who worry about the vulnerable state of their clients. “They are not interested in anything that puts their clients at risk. They don’t want experimentation,” commented Marquardt.  “The downside risk of this conservatism, however, is that legal aid lawyers struggle to see the opportunities created by newer and better processes and technologies.”

During the 3-week bootcamp, the law students and mid-career professionals will cover the following curriculum:

Marquardt is interested in IFLP because it provides legal aid lawyers with an opportunity to leave their daily caseloads and immerse themselves in new ideas and the fresh perspective of law students. Its Marquardt’s hope that when they return to work, they can soften the soil for future change initiatives that can deliver greater coverage and relief to low- and moderate-income clients.

At IFLP, we hope we can continue LTF’s prodigious 36-year stretch of wise and fruitful investments.