The increased number of people living in the collar counties brought both good and bad changes to the state's legal aid community.
On one hand, the population boom over the past decade led to the formation of self-help legal centers across the state, giving people the resources they need to handle their own cases while easing the burden on the courts.
But, on the other hand, the boost in collar county and suburban residents, paired with a tough economy, produced a spike in the number of people living in poverty.
More people than ever before qualify to receive legal aid assistance, a tough task for the state's legal aid groups to handle in an economy that's already forced lay-offs and office closures.
A 2011 report on poverty conducted by the Heartland Alliance Social IMPACT Research Center shows that one of out every three Illinois residents can be categorized as poor or low-income, the main factor to qualify for legal aid assistance.
Michael T. O'Connor, director of Prairie State Legal Services Inc., said the suburbs seem to host the largest- and fastest-growing population of poor people. His group serves nearly three dozen counties in northern Illinois.
Statistics show O'Connor's legal aid group opened 8,651 cases in 2010 in DuPage, Kane, Lake McHenry and Will counties, up from about 6,118 in 2000.
It appears McHenry County experienced the largest increase in the number of cases opened by the group out of the five collar counties, jumping from 373 cases in 2000 and to 1,252 in 2010.
"When it comes to McHenry County, if we went back in time 15 years, we didn't have an office there," he said. "Within the past 15 years, we've gone from a situation of going out there once a month for an intake day to now having a fully staffed office."
From 2000 to 2010, the group's number of DuPage County cases increased from 1,517 to 2,007, Lake County cases went from 1,562 to 2,291 and Will County cases rose from 604 to 864.
It appears the group saw a slight dip in Kane County, where it opened 2,037 cases in 2010 compared to 2,062 in 2000.
Kane County became the first county in the state to put a self-help center in its courthouse, said Lisa A. Colpoys, executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online.
Colpoys said judges in the collar counties began to contact her group in 2005 for help dealing with the population growth's effects on their courts.
"Because of the growth out there, the judges were struggling with the influx of self-represented people, which can throw courtrooms into chaos," Colpoys said. "Having educated pro se litigants definitely helps with keeping the system efficient."
Within six years, Colpoys' group set up self-help centers that provide pro se litigants resources, but not legal advice in 82 of the state's counties. By the end of this year, she said she hopes to bring that number as close to 100 as possible.
With more eligible people and more cases, O'Connor said cuts in funding make providing legal aid even harder.
O'Connor's group receives federal money through Legal Services Corp., an independent agency that provides grants to 135 civil legal aid programs throughout the nation, including three in Illinois.
LSC's budget dropped from $404 million in fiscal year 2011 to $348 million this fiscal year.
When the U.S. Census Bureau released its 2010 statistics in September, John G. Levi, a partner at Sidley, Austin LLP who serves as chairman of LSC's board of directors, stressed the difficulty legal aid groups face without adequate funding.
He said the number of Americans eligible for legal aid stands at about 60.4 million, a nearly 3.6 million hike from last year.
Levi asked Congress for a $470 million in fiscal year 2013. President Barack Obama proposed a $402 million appropriation to LSC while a Republican-crafted budget completely zeroes out LSC funding.
"I certainly hope it's not going anywhere," O'Connor said of the GOP-backed budget.