Q&A with Pat Wrona, Director of Legal Services at CARPLS
CARPLS, an IEJF grantee, is Cook County’s largest provider of free legal services. Founded in 1993, CARPLS has helped more than 800,000 low- and moderate-income residents find solutions to their everyday legal matters.
In addition to creating significant hardships for Illinois families, the COVID-19 crisis has also led to a host of new laws and programs. What are you seeing now at CARPLS and have the requests for legal assistance changed at all since the beginning of the pandemic?
The pandemic has really revealed existing cracks in our society, and that includes the legal system. The first change that is significant is who is seeking our services. We have seen an influx of people who prior to the pandemic never would have thought of accessing the legal aid system. People who were working, who had good jobs, but for the first time ever find themselves unemployed, out of money, and are defaulting on legal obligations like rent, mortgages, child support and debt payments.
Also, at CARPLS we are really the “pro se coach” for many self-represented litigants who are trying to handle court cases on their own without an attorney. All the confusion about courts being first closed, then matters continued, then the court opened but conducting hearing by video conferencing with limited access to the courthouse itself, has been a tremendous challenge for pro se litigants, and they are calling about that. Of course, our core subject areas like housing, debt and family law are in high demand in a pandemic, with employment law seeing a big surge as well.
Accessing unemployment benefits has been a major issue here in Illinois. In your career prior to CARPLS, you led a strong employment law practice. Tell us about CARPLS’ new tool, Benny, to help people navigate this often challenging process.
Yes, I have done employment law all my career, but never expected to ever see something like what the pandemic has done to this discipline, in terms of rapidly changing laws, regulations, and just the huge increase in demand of employees needing talk about what is happening to them at their job.
And part of that is unemployment. 1.3 million Illinoisans are unemployed, many of whom have never interfaced with unemployment or the IDES (Illinois Department of Employment Security) before. Getting unemployment is a government process, it somewhat technical, and it can be confusing. At CARPLS, we experienced a 1000% increase in unemployment calls. So thanks to the support of the legal aid funding community, we were able to develop Benny, the CARPLS virtual assistant for Illinois unemployment issues: www.bennyfits.org.
Benny is an online chat bot, and while the user is not chatting with a live attorney, Benny’s logic and software was developed with that legal expertise. Benny addresses the most common issues claimants are having, gives them legal information about how the process works, and lets them know if they are on the right track, or if they are not, points them to the right track. Benny directs users to legal resources that are available online, as well are connects them to the legal aid lawyers who do unemployment cases, all the while being there 24/7 online for people who might otherwise not access legal aid, or who are up late at night worrying about their income.
By the numbers, CARPLS is not only the largest provider of legal aid in Cook County but the #1 legal aid hotline in the country. What do you think makes your organization so effective?
From its beginning, CARPLS has always had its eye on the big picture: that there is a very large demand for legal services but not very many legal aid attorneys. But CARPLS recognizes that the chance to talk to an attorney, one on one, about your specific legal problem, really is the cornerstone of access to justice. We have found that 85% of everyone’s legal problems are solved or at least much improved by having a legal consultation with us.
And with that at the heart of our program, we have worked with technology to be sure we can deliver that consultation to as many people as we possibly can. And we have harnessed the collective skill and wisdom of our very experienced legal staff into a knowledge management library that is at the fingertips of every attorney as they work on their cases, giving them legal advice, strategy, referrals and letters and pleadings that they can use to help the client they are working with.
As I have gone around the country talking about the CARPLS model, it seems to me that many legal aid programs are trapped in old ways of doing things. CARPLS has always had this forward looking perspective of asking the “why” behind processes, and how can we change them to serve more clients. And it is working. We are closing in on 1 million legal consultations probably later this year.
On a personal note, how are you adjusting to this ‘new normal?’ And have you discovered any great books or TV shows while social distancing?
Running a 35-person law office from your couch is more challenging than I would have suspected. I never was a fan of commuting on the CTA, so that part of working from home has been a real plus. I do miss my big desktop monitor at CARPLS; looking at a laptop screen is getting old! I wish I had more time to read, but I do relax with Netflix and Amazon Prime.
I am a fan of “Alone”—I have binge watched all seven seasons about contestants left completely alone in very harsh terrains and climates, to survive for as long as they can hold out, armed with little more than their skill sets. I feel the show is a metaphor for surviving the pandemic. I also have learned how to weave a gillnet to catch river salmon, should I ever find myself stranded in Alaska. These are important skills to have. You never know what life will throw at you.
Need help accessing unemployment benefits in Illinois? Benny is here to help.