What were you doing 20 years ago? I was in the middle of law school trying to keep my head above water. Luckily, there was a group of forward-thinking Illinoisians who saw that too many people lacked access to justice because they didn’t qualify for legal aid or have enough money to pay for a private attorney.
Instead of throwing their hands in the air, this innovative group created a solution. This solution, which is now called Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), celebrated its 20th Anniversary this month. ILAO provides simple, online self-help legal tools that make justice accessible for those who need it most.
I spoke with Executive Director Teri Ross and Director of Product Development Gwen Daniels about the significance of reaching this milestone, the biggest challenges ILAO has faced, and what’s in store for the future.
How significant is this 20-year milestone?
Teri: It’s hard to believe that the organization has been around for 20 years. ILAO started the same year as Wikipedia and Legal Zoom. Just over half of America was online when ILAO started; now 100% of Americans aged 18-29 use the internet.
When ILAO began, many people were skeptical about using technology to fight racism and poverty – those voices have receded into the sounds of mobile phone use.
Gwen: As someone who was involved with ILAO since before day one, it’s a huge milestone. When we started, ILAO was envisioned to be a small three-person operation providing a platform for information on legal aid organizations and the client education materials they had always provided on paper.
To watch us grow to where we offer integrated triage, intake, and referrals and a wealth of legal information with a team of 20 staff and contractors is just an amazing thing to see happen.
What are the three biggest lessons ILAO has learned over the last 20 years?
Teri: Not sure these are the biggest lessons, but here are three important lessons:
1) We are not our target users; we must design and test our services with the people for whom the services are developed. Evaluation and measurement has taken a much stronger role in our organization’s practices over the years.
2) Legal problems don’t happen in a vacuum or one at a time. Our legal information shouldn’t be limited to strictly legal, it should be practical, too. As my colleague Roger Smith once observed, none of the habitability resources on legal websites said “put a bucket under the leak before you contact your landlord.”
3) One size doesn’t fit all. People learn in different ways and differ in their preferences for consuming information. It’s important to offer a multi-channel, multi-faceted approach to meet people where they are, whether they’re exploring their legal options or thrust into a legal situation.
How has ILAO impacted the legal profession as a whole?
Teri: ILAO’s free, 24/7, plain-language tools offer benefits to people throughout the legal system — from judges, clerks, and pro bono counsel, to legal aid and domestic violence victim advocates, to people who cannot afford lawyers and their families.
ILAO makes the legal system more efficient and effective by distilling difficult legal concepts into understandable, actionable tools.
What are you most excited about for ILAO’s future?
Gwen: I’m excited to see how we grow beyond website delivery. Our products are expanding to APIs, SMS, and voice services over the next few years – the internet of things is broadening. We are doing more systematic product evaluation and deeper community engagement through our navigator programs. These will reveal new insights to help us further improve our products and services.
What will ILAO’s impact be over the next 20 years?
Teri: It’s hard to say. The pandemic has accelerated the rate of progress in some of our more fixed institutions. At the same time, the pandemic has magnified our nation’s inequities, including in our legal system. The pandemic has also driven – out of necessity – more people to digital service delivery.
Digital delivery – much like court [services] – needs to be less daunting and more friendly. Legal services has a scalability problem; we are closely following the changes in the practice of law and limited license trends and anticipate our services will align with these emerging changes in the coming years.
Over the past 20 years, ILAO has positioned itself as a statewide leader in legal information with quality legal resources that have not gone unnoticed.
Illinois Court Help, a program in creation by the Illinois Courts, will “rely on ILAO quite a bit when people are seeking information about their legal problems and will connect them to ILAO for legal information and to find legal assistance,” said Lisa Colpoys, Supervising Senior Program Manager for Illinois Court Help and former Executive Director at ILAO.
Illinois Court Help will provide remote assistance, navigational support, and legal information to court users, self-represented litigants, and lawyers. The goal is to deliver what were in-person navigational services through the telephone, email, text, and online chat, helping court users better understand court rules and procedures and efficiently move cases forward.
“In the future, we hope to share content with ILAO so that we both can utilize the knowledge we have to serve the people of Illinois,” Colpoys said.
To learn more about ILAO’s history and its 20th Anniversary, visit https://www.illinoislegalaid.org/20years.
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