Last month, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) won a 2013 Innovation Award in the Pro Bono category for their Statewide Online Access System. The awards were presented by Law Technology News (LTN).(For those not in the know, these are basically the Oscars of the legal tech community – except bigger.)

Gwen Daniels
Gwen Daniels

ILAO’s System is “designed to streamline the delivery of free legal services in Illinois by directing people seeking civil legal assistance to the best service available for their legal issue in their geographic area.” After receiving the award, Gwendelyn Daniels, Technology Director at ILAO, stopped by our offices for a conversation about the Statewide Access System.

In 2011 ILAO received a TIG grant to replicate a system used by the Northwest Justice Project (NWJ); the goal was to create a single system for both intake and triage. The design process started with NWJ’s logic as a baseline, but completely changed the technology underlying the system. ILAO wanted a system that accommodated and streamlined existing workflows, practices, and systems of programs across Illinois. This required a highly (and easily) customizable system that could meet the specific, and occasionally idiosyncratic, needs of every organization. For example, organizations’ intake processes have different questions and often define terms slightly differently.

ILAO’s design achieves their goals through the use of a common ColdFusion object with editable text-based rule files for each organization. The text files make the Online Access System highly customizable, ensuring easy integration with existing workflows. In addition, the design makes the system easily and quickly scalable. This will be crucial to future rollouts as ILAO adds functionality (multi-language support is coming soon) and expands the system across different practice areas and geographic regions.

Historically, legal hotline advocates spend half their time informing litigants that they cannot help and directing the caller to another organization. Meanwhile, many individuals that CAN be helped are placed on hold or never get through and receive the services they need. The Statewide Online Access System has streamlined these legal services providers’ workflows through the provision of effective, response triage, allowing them to more efficiently deploy their scarce resources.

Litigants enter basic information about their situation and through a sophisticated process, the System directs to the most effective resource, whether it is a hotline, an in-person consultation, or self-help materials. They can quickly access the help they need, instead of spending countless hours calling, or traveling to, multiple organizations. In turn, providers can allocate resources to high priority cases, leveraging their expertise to make the biggest difference. In a world of tight budget, time, and resource constraints, effective triage is perhaps the essential element in the provision of efficient and meaningful legal services.

The new Statewide Access System provides legal aid organizations across Illinois with this capacity, and is a paradigmatic example of how technology can be used to close the access to justice gap. Pro Bono Net congratulates Gwen Daniels and the staff of ILAO on this much-deserved award.