Illinois Court Help is changing how people interact with the court system.  Let’s hope it’s the beginning of something big.

[Editor’s note: Today’s feature post is written by Amanda N. Marino, a very talented recent law grad (Maurer Law ’22) with stellar journalism credentials.   Back in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic disrupted the summer internships of so many law students, Amanda ended up in a special summer version of my How Innovation Diffusions in the Legal Industry course.

I’ve taught the Diffusion course several times at three different law schools. And certainly, Amanda is among the most engaged and creative students I’ve encountered. But on one dimension, she’s completely unique.  One day during class, she spoke her truth, which I paraphrase here: “I understand the importance and power of diffusion theory — that it can help companies successfully drive adoption of their products and services. But I want to use its power to improve the legal system.”  Okay, I thought to myself, if I can use my network, connections, and resources to help this student, I will.

In the spring semester of her 3L year, Amanda asked if I would supervise a short independent study project to earn one more course credit needed for graduation. I agreed on one condition — that she digs into some topics in the PeopleLaw realm that are relatively time-intensive to research yet likely important and useful to the underresourced #A2J movement.  I had a few ideas on where to start and primed the pump with some initial phone calls and email introductions.  But Amanda Marino did everything else. I hope you enjoy today’s unique and special feature.  wdh]

“Good morning. This is Lisa with Illinois Court Help. Who am I speaking with?”

Lisa Colpoys took her first call of the day shortly after 9:30 a.m. Deftly, she began collecting data from the caller. What was their name? In which of Illinois’ 102 counties was their court issue happening? Why were they calling? How did they find out about Illinois Court Help?

Lisa Colpoys, Supervising Senior Program Manager, Illinois Court Help

Illinois Court Help is the customer service for court users, and LIsa Colpoys has been the supervising senior program manager since the program was launched by the Illinois Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (“AOIC”) in 2021. The AOIC is the administrative branch supporting supreme and state courts in Illinois.

The COVID-19 pandemic inspired the creation of Illinois Court Help, but the one-of-a-kind aid it supplies to court users across the state is at the forefront of legal innovation.

When the pandemic began to shut down courthouses, forcing people out of offices and onto the internet, court users immediately lost vital access to the help they would normally get in court.

Colpoys explained that court users were no longer able to talk to court clerks in person — nobody was allowed in the courthouse buildings. Or on the phone — people working from home were not monitoring office phones, leaving questions unanswered and pro se litigants and attorneys alike without aid. In-person resources like courthouse navigators from Illinois JusticeCorps went home, too.

“It’s clear [this aid] has been needed for a long time because there are so many people trying to navigate the court system on their own,” Colpoys said. People working without being a lawyer or having a lawyer are effectively up against a system that’s “in a way, shrouded in secrecy.”

People don’t generally interact with the legal system until they are in need, Colpoys explained. They are thrown into the mix at a difficult time in their lives without direction.

Illinois operates an entirely e-filing-based system, so isolation due to COVID-19 proved to be devastating, particularly for people without reliable internet.  “It’s not made for pro se litigants to use,” Colpoys said. “All of the court guides have become experts on e-filing because we walk people through it every day.”

Something needed to be done to bring the state’s tech-based legal system to the people who were engaging with it, sometimes with their homes and livelihoods at stake.  “The need for this type of a service existed long before the pandemic,” Colpoys said.

How it started

In a show of awareness and compassion, discussions begun in May 2020 about the disconnect led to the suggestion of a hotline to answer people’s questions about interacting with the court while not providing legal advice or representation. This publicized court help hotline idea was presented to the Illinois Supreme Court and the AOIC Access to Justice Commission.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne M. Burke

Chief Justice Anne M. Burke supported the idea and took it one step further: instead of just a hotline, make it so people can communicate how they prefer, including through text and email. Colpoys said that seeing the Court recognize that court users are customers and need customer support inspired her.

A new proposal was submitted to the Illinois Supreme Court during the summer, and in fall 2020, the Supreme Court approved, promising funding for the first year.

To lead this innovative program, the Illinois Supreme Court and AOIC called on Lisa Colpoys, whose passion for public service and almost two decades of experience leading Illinois Legal Aid Online made her the ideal candidate to set the standard for Illinois Court Help.

[Editor’s note: At the time, Colpoys was the Program Manager for the Institute for the Future of Law Practice, which had been thrown the curveball of trying to place law students in innovation internships during the pandemic. Haha, during the summer of 2020, I did not foresee the potential of the pandemic to wisely reorder at least some things for the better. wdh]

Colpoys served as the Executive Director of Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) from its launch in 2002 until 2018, effectively managing legal aid resources online since the resource became widely available.

ILAO was a collaborative project between legal aid organizations, mainly because, at the time, legal technology was unfamiliar territory. They broke ground together with resources for legal aid lawyers, pro bono lawyers, and resources for the public, pro se litigant “partly because we could make the biggest impact there,” Colpoys said.

It took several years for ILAO to become accessible in all 102 Illinois counties. Kiosks with assistants present were the norm, but those became inaccessible during the pandemic.

Now, Colpoys has spent sixteen months working in her present position, creating the program and overseeing its growth and development. The first several months were dedicated to scoping out what services would be offered and what tech vendors would help Illinois Court Help offer the best services.

The technology is great, Colpoys explained, but the program needs more humans now, especially since approximately two-thirds of people who reach out do so by phone.

The court customer point of view

“The court customer point of view has not been taken into consideration … especially in the e-filing system,” Colpoys said.

E-filing needs more human-centered designs and more human support for people whose abilities do not match what the technology requires.

“We have to meet [users] where they are,” Colpoys said. “We’ve become the e-filing support desk.”

Illinois Court Help is doing just that, she explained. People find the program either online, on a flyer, or through a suggestion from a circuit clerk. Clerks also benefit from Illinois Court Help because the program helps lessen the clerks’ daily load, giving more people the guidance they need.

A phone message will welcome the caller (in English or Spanish, with options to access aid in other languages including Punjabi) and then a court guide will answer their questions, navigating the line between information and legal advice that clerks must also be aware of in their work.

Court guides will take their information and then ask the caller what general issues they are facing. The guides will then help them find the forms they need, explain legal processes to them, and point them in the direction of resources that can provide more help. Calls are followed up with traditional mail and emails that include links and sometimes documents.

The entire process can happen in about ten minutes, depending on the issue, and users are always able to call back if they encounter obstacles or confusion as they proceed.

Leveraging technology to improve process and collect data

Illinois Court Help runs on Zendesk, a customer service technology platform that allows the program to collect data that can find and highlight inefficiencies in the court system. Zendesk is the backbone of the program, providing an all-in-one service that facilitates communication and collects information at the same time.

So far, the results are promising. Receipts show that hundreds of users can call in a day, most of them getting answers to their questions in minutes. With about four to five people working at any given time, and each of those people closing about four tickets per hour, thousands of people have already been helped.

Zendesk’s data collection is populated by ticket forms that court guides fill out during user interactions. Illinois Court Help logs all the following:

  • Type of user (whether court users, family/friends of court users, attorneys/legal staff, etc.)
  • County (So far, Illinois Court Help has assisted people in 98 of 102 counties, with some counties even including Illinois Court Help contact information as a resource on their website.)
  • Issue type (Users may need information about e-filing issues, remote court issues, courthouse information, and most commonly, assistance with paperwork and forms.)
  • Case/problem type (civil or criminal, and then sub-categories such as small claims, divorce, misdemeanors, etc.)
  • Level of court (Colpoys said Illinois Court Help assists people at all levels up to and including the Illinois Supreme Court.)
  • Who referred the user to Illinois Court Help

Along with Zendesk, the team collaborates in real time on Microsoft Teams, collectively asking questions and sharing knowledge.

The success of Illinois Court Help has caught the eye of out-of-state organizations like the Indiana Bar Foundation, who is interested in the system. Though Colpoys has voiced interest in sharing the model with other states, she said her work will stay in Illinois. She wants to build a program that other states can take and replicate.

All courts need to treat users as customers, she said. People pay for us with tax dollars, and we’re public servants, so we need to serve them.

Passion for providing service

In her current role, Colpoys’s passion for providing service is readily apparent. She is hands-on, taking calls, texts, and emails daily from people who are struggling with the court system she says was created by lawyers for lawyers.

“It’s just so frustrating to hear what their problems are,” she said.

The human aspect of Illinois Court Help may be its most notable asset. Court guides search an ever-growing, internally-developed knowledge base in real-time to find clear, comprehensive resources to send to users. And the users are grateful for the help.

“You’re the first person who’s listened to me,” one woman told Colpoys on their call.

“Thank you very much,” a man said to court guide Helen Doig. “I appreciate you.”

When the call is over, a court guide takes five minutes to finalize and clarify their notes on the open ticket before getting back online.

Each court guide has their own style for taking calls, but all of them include a mix of passion and compassion. They are willing to break down complex court processes into manageable pieces for users and have a seemingly infinite well of patience for people who find the procedures confusing.

“I know that I’m going to overwhelm them because I’m giving them a lot of information,” Doig said.

Court guides even take the time to walk people, line-by-line if needed, through documents and filings. This kind of care can be very hard to come by. Users seem to immediately trust court guides, aware of how lost they would be without their aid. Some who have called more than once will even ask for the same guide because of the bond built in those few minutes on the phone.

“It’s a lot,” Doig said. “Going through court is a lot for anybody.”

Giving people the human touch

With Illinois Court Help succeeding in its mission and ready to grow, Colpoys is filled with hope. Ideally, the program will be able to double its number of full-time court guides this summer.

“I’m delighted and thrilled that the courts in Illinois are investing and providing this to their users,” she said.

In the future, along with a larger staff, Colpoys would like to see additional channels of communication open, such as a chat channel directly on the program’s website or deployed directly on circuit clerks’ and the Illinois Supreme Court’s websites.

“We want to meet people where they are,” Colpoys said.

Colpoys also suggested that Illinois Court Help should explore how to connect people with an in-person touch because she knows that some people require that specific type of aid for any number of reasons. Though it can be said that we live in a high-tech society, not everybody is equally high-tech.

“I would love to have a person in every courthouse who can help,” she said.

While modernization and streamlining can be effective means of making legal processes easier, the number of people who need assistance from a knowledgeable human cannot be ignored.

“The technology is there,” Colpoys said. “We need to spend more time on giving people the human touch.”