(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol 41, Issue 5.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many aspects of daily life, with shelter-in-place orders or some degree of physical distancing. This health emergency has affected individuals of all ages, but older adults and people with compromised immune systems are particularly at high risk if exposed to COVID-19. Additionally, older adult populations that were already marginalized have been predominantly affected by the health and economic impacts of the pandemic: low-income individuals, people of color, and those residing in long-term care facilities. The need for legal help has not ceased, and legal providers even expect growth in certain practice areas such as housing, access to nutrition and health care, income, and elder abuse and neglect.
In early to mid-March legal aid shifted with remarkable speed and ingenuity to remote legal work to meet the needs of older adults and ensure continuity of services. This temporary change has been important for the health and safety of both clients and staff. While we are fortunate to live in a time when technology tools are widely available to assist with remote legal work, many legal providers have had to make the shift to remote work quickly, and are continuously working to make this change in service delivery as efficient and accessible as possible. Knowledge of the tools available and how to access them will be key to successful delivery of legal services during the pandemic There are many lessons to be learned that can continue to inform legal assistance practice even after the public health crisis abates and preferred in-person attorney client relationships again become more readily available.
Remote Legal Delivery Tools
Successful remote legal work requires access to communication tools, files, important documents, case management systems, and tools to support video or phone-based meetings. Technology tools can also be used to enhance existing phone-based services and streamline the workflow of legal staff. Some attorneys and support staff may be more comfortable with technology than others. For providers who need more training on using technology tools, the Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project and Tech Soup have libraries of trainings on basic topics, including using Microsoft Office. For larger offices, it may make sense to conduct an internal survey of staff to determine what tools individuals have access to at home and what hardware and software needs exist.
When using technology tools for remote work, privacy and security must be considered. SANS Security Awareness has resources available for creating a secure remote workforce. Technology Safety also has resources to help programs evaluate the security and privacy features of many technology tools, and offers a chart for comparison of video conferencing tools. Attorneys and staff should update (or install) anti-virus, anti-malware and firewall software on the equipment they are using for remote work.
This article shares examples and suggestions for current available technology tools, but these lists are not exhaustive and do not serve as an endorsement of any particular company or solution. Individual legal providers should evaluate their own needs before utilizing a tool and consider other factors, such as staff and client preferences, cost and compatibility with existing programs.
Access to internet is necessary for many of the technology tools that are highlighted in this article. Some service providers are offering discounted access for new customers, expanding special programs for low-income customers, and boosting speeds on low cost plans. These options will vary by location.
Legal providers can also consider purchasing hotspots (and/or cell phones with a plan that includes using it for a hotspot) to provide their staff with connectivity. Mobile Beacon and Tech Soup are potential sources for affordable hotspot devices when stock is available.
In addition to staff connectivity, legal providers may benefit from generating a list of connectivity resources for clients and potential clients. Some older adults with limited means may not have access to broadband services but could benefit from the discounted offers from providers during this time. This can expand the tools that you can use when interacting with clients.
In this time of physical distancing, phone services are a critical component of continued operations for legal providers. For full service legal providers, phone service will be needed for intake and ongoing client interactions. Legal helplines that utilize phone-based service models will need to continue operations including brief service and referrals to other providers.
While legal staff may have personal phones available, concerns may exist about privacy and compensation for utilization of personal phones. Programs will also want to have the continuity of phone numbers that clients and the community are familiar with and receive from referral sources. Some options for continuing phone service remotely include:
VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol): VoIP can allow you to make a call directly from a computer, a specific VoIP phone, or a traditional phone connected to a particular adapter.
Call-forwarding: Redirect calls from an office number to ring at another number. This may be available from your current phone system, or you may wish to explore other options such as the examples below.
Vonage: Currently offering 90 days of free services to help with business continuity, including voice & text messaging (SMS).
Google Voice: Utilizes smartphones and internet to place and receive calls from anywhere.
RingCentral Office: Can provide a business cloud-based telephone system, video meetings, team messaging, faxing and SMS. Currently, it is available to nonprofits for free for three months.
TalkRoute: Offers a trial period, and provides a virtual phone system to make & receive calls from computers or smartphones.
Amazon Connect: Creates a virtual contact center.
For example, a legal assistance provider with a statewide service area may find itself suddenly needing to set up a large number of staff members on a centralized phone and messaging system in order to continue to operate intake and a hotline. Using staff personal phone numbers and phones would not be ideal due to the limitations of service, possible confusion with new phone numbers, and lack of multiple line options. A service like RingCentral can be set up quickly, using existing office phone numbers so that on the client end, access points continue as usual.
Internal Meetings and Workflow
Legal assistance providers will want to continue collaborative efforts within their offices to both effectively share strategies for client services and provide office updates and information. Case management systems may have options for managing workflow associated with individual client cases. Some of these capabilities may not have been used before but could be helpful in this time. Your individual case management company’s website would be a good place to start to see what options may be available and how to set it up.
Additional programs are available for virtual office meetings and collaborative conversations, such as:
Microsoft Teams: Integrated with Office 365, and can be used for meeting, calls, and collaboration.
Slack: Helps organize communication channels for group discussions or one-to-one messaging. Currently offers a three month free trial for nonprofits.
Basecamp: Online project management platform (document sharing, messaging boards, etc.)
Zoom: For video conferencing. Offers a limited free version and a nonprofit discount.
Google Meet: A service for business meetings and is now free for everyone.
LogMeIn: Offers nonprofits with free, organization-wide use of many products such as GoToMeeting for three months through its “Emergency Remote Work Kit.”
Gruveo: One-click video conferencing. Offers a 45-day extended trial period.
Document Sharing & Signature Tools
The practice of law requires sharing documents between the attorney and client, often from the beginning to the end of representation. For example, an older adult may call a legal provider for assistance with a Social Security overpayment. From the start, the attorney may need to get a retainer agreement to the client and also get a copy of the notice of overpayment from the client. Without the option to have an initial in-person meeting, the representation would potentially start much more slowly, as the document exchange would have to rely on mailing documents back and forth.
However, there are options for remote scanning and e-signatures that can help in these situations. Even for staff and clients who have limited technology at home and lack a traditional printer and scanner, phone or tablet apps can facilitate a similar function. Some options for scanning include Microsoft Office Lens, ClearScanner App, Scanner Pro App, Adobe Scan App and the iPhone Notes App. E-signature tools include programs like SignRequest, DocuSign, Adobe Sign, Sign Now, and HelloSign and Dropbox.
Legal providers can also consider using a secure and HIPAA compliant mailing service, such as Postal Methods, which generates a mailed letter by uploading or emailing a document. There are even options for the inclusion of a pre-paid envelope for the client to mail documents back. This type of service can streamline office mailing operations during this time of remote service, and offer an option for clients who do not have smart phones or tablets.
For documents that require notarization, legal providers can look at remote online notarization options in their individual state. Some states already permitted remote online notarization, and others have issued emergency orders to allow it during the pandemic. The National Notary Association has some state information on their website. Unfortunately, some clients may not be able to participate in remote online notarization if they do not have a technology tool with video capability. For these situations, legal providers may need to explore options for notary services that exist in places where clients are going during physical distancing, such as grocery stores, or, for urgent matters, take steps to witness signatures through the window of a client’s home or residence.
Communications & Partnerships
As legal assistance providers continue operations remotely, it is important that the community and partners are aware that legal assistance is still available to older adults and how it can be accessed. Some suggestions for distributing this information include:
Prominent website banner in plain language
Inform partners of changes to services and availability
Inform constituent services staff for elected officials
Information at grocery stores and pharmacies with special hours for older adults (AARP is maintaining an extensive list) and/or ask these stores to include a flyer with delivery services
Any materials that are being distributed to the public will benefit from being adapted to plain language and translated into additional languages. You can connect with other local community organizations to find out about translation options in your community. Positive messaging that emphasizes the services that are available, and that offers help and a path forward, can help reinforce the vital role of legal support for older adults during a turbulent time.
Also important is continued collaboration with the aging and social services community. While nutrition services, protective services and long-term care ombudsmen may be working differently at this time, all are present in the community in some capacity, especially with the renewed support awarded by the Administration for Community Living pursuant to the CARES Act. They can partner in identifying individuals experiencing problems with legal solutions, and can assist with referrals, document sharing, and communicating with clients who may lack access to otherwise available electronic, internet and phone channels .
Even as the spread of the virus slows and restrictions begin to lift, some clients and legal staff who are at high-risk if exposed to COVID-19 will want to continue to practice physical distancing. Legal providers can serve the role of facilitating these practices by keeping some of these remote service options available for individuals who need them, and make it known that these options remain in place as preferred. Additionally, providers can advocate for clients and staff for whom court appearances may put their health in jeopardy, by requesting continuances and telephone or video appearances.
As moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures lift, legal providers are likely to see a surge in housing and income-related cases. Issues will continue to arise with access to income, health care, and food through public benefits programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and SNAP. Additionally, issues related to the rights of nursing home residents, receipt of stimulus payments, and unemployment insurance may be expected. Older adults and others who may have been sheltering in place with an abuser may start seeking legal help once shelter orders are lifted. The tools and workflows that legal providers are putting in place now for remote work may be helpful in responding to this expected increase in demand for legal services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has called on us to reflect on how we can think about access to justice as we move ahead. The shift to remote legal services is a necessary one right now, but gives us the opportunity to evaluate ways that we can continue to make the entry points and delivery of legal help more widely available to the people who need it the most.
Justice in Aging, Urgent Needs of Low-Income Older Adults During COVID-19 Crisis. (April 2020);  Federal Communications Commission: Voice Over Internet Protocol.(2020)
Hilary Dalin is the director of the Office of Elder Justice and Adult Protective Services at the Administration for Community Living in Washington, D.C.
Sarah Galvan is a senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging, and works on the National Center on Law and Elder Rights (NCLER).
Liz Keith is program director at Pro Bono Net.
To read this and other articles in the May-June issue of BIFOCAL, click here.