URBANA — Bob Spencer said he learned the secret to helping bewildered litigants in his first 10 years of life by tagging after his father.
"Dad was a country minister. He listened to people who needed to talk. You learn more by sitting with your mouth shut than by telling people what they want," said the veteran Champaign attorney.
For the better part of the last five years, Spencer has been the "navigator" for the self-representation help desk at the Champaign County Courthouse, which began in 2005 as a project of the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.
Spencer assisted thousands of people who needed help resolving a dispute in court but either couldn't afford an attorney or felt they could handle the courtroom on their own and then realized they couldn't.
"I would get people who were basically illiterate and had to read the forms to them and spell the words for them to put in the spaces," said Spencer, an attorney for 41 years.
Spencer was honored Friday by his Land of Lincoln colleagues and a few other courthouse friends. His health in decline, Spencer is moving to Springfield to be closer to his doctors.
He was an attorney in general practice in Chicago for 18 years, spent another 16 years at Allied Title in Champaign, then decided to hang out his own shingle in 2007. He got sick in 2008 but still wanted to be involved in the law so the 15-hour-a-week gig at the help desk — a small room located on the first floor of the courthouse between the circuit clerk's office and the traffic courtroom — was a good fit.
"I'm not sure if people understand the court system just has such a load. Nobody official has time to listen to your problems. That's what the self-help desk does," he said.
And boy, did he.
In 2011, he dealt with 1,570 inquiries in the 135 days the room was open. That's an average of 11.6 people per day. The average was 13.7 in 2012, then settled back down to 11.5 in 2013.
Had Spencer been charging $150 to $200 an hour as a private attorney, those numbers would have made him a very comfortable man in his retirement.
The service is free to litigants. The $14,000 annual cost of keeping the room open is paid for by a portion of a library fee tacked on as a cost in some court cases.
"It's busy," said Urbana attorney Tom Sweeney, who stepped into the navigator post for Spencer in January. His daily average has been 10.5 inquiries.
"More than half is family stuff," Sweeney said of the requests for help.
A lawyer for 38 years, Sweeney spent 21 of those running the support enforcement program for the Champaign County state's attorney's office, so he's well-suited for the job. "Bob hadn't done family law at all so I don't know how he did it. The numbers are staggering. I was amazed."
Doing family law on his own since 1998, Sweeney said he needed something to "help pay the rent" and liked the ability to help people wade through the forms they need on everything from an order of protection to an eviction.
Both Spencer and Sweeney said people usually enter the room frustrated and leave it grateful.
"I can't think of a better asset for the local court system. I refer people there constantly," said Associate Judge Chase Leonhard, who handles small claims, evictions and mortgage foreclosures, among other assignments. He estimated he sends at least 10 people a week to the help room.
"People who don't have lawyers are really out of their element and really kind of helpless because the law is so complicated. They come in with justifiable questions about what to do and how to do it. It's invariably frustrating for a judge to be faced with that situation because legally and ethically the court can't dispense advice," Leonhard said. "That's why I appear to be so aloof. I find myself apologizing to people for invoking ethical rules but it's the law."
Val McWilliams, senior supervisory attorney with Land of Lincoln, praised Spencer.
"He provided an element of stability that was missing before this," McWilliams said. "He's very compassionate. Occasionally, I would fill in and people would say, 'When is Bob going to be back?' He is very patient and really likes helping people."
Likewise, she said Land of Lincoln was grateful to get someone with Sweeney's background to step in.
"Things are going great guns," she said. "He's been improving forms and is taking this to a new level."
Hours of operation
Current hours for the self-representation help room at Champaign County Courthouse:
Monday: 9 a.m. to noon; 1 to 4 p.m.
Wednesday: 9 a.m. to noon; 1 to 3 p.m.
Friday: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.