Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 2.12 on Institutional Stature and Credibility

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A provider should actively seek to achieve institutional stature and credibility in the communities in which it operates.


General considerations

Effective representation of clients is enhanced if the provider establishes a positive institutional presence in the communities in which it operates. Like the good will that attaches to a business name, the provider's reputation belongs to the institution. It persists despite changes in personnel and provides the backdrop against which all its practitioners practice.

In order to achieve institutional stature and credibility, the provider should operate in ways that command respect both in the low income community and among public leaders and others who make decisions that may affect low income persons. Such esteem will in part be gained by the provider producing high quality legal work that is responsive to the needs of its constituents, as described in these Standards. It also derives from the organization being a visible presence in the communities in which it operates. The provider should be actively engaged with bar associations, with other legal aid providers, community groups and with social service agencies and civic organizations that serve low income communities.

There are important indicia of a provider's having established institutional stature and credibility. A legal aid provider that has acquired a positive reputation in the community gains influence in the communities in which it operates. Decision-makers are more likely to seek input from a well regarded provider. Elected officials, for instance, are more likely to include representatives of a respected provider on task forces and planning commissions that are addressing issues of community-wide significance. Local and state legislators see such an organization as an appropriate place from which to seek input on legislation being considered. Policy-makers are more apt to confer informally with the leadership and other recognized experts from the provider on issues of importance to low income communities. Newspapers may seek the comment of the provider on pertinent issues, offering an opportunity to foster a more accurate public view of low income communities and the challenges they face.

Institutional stature and credibility can also assist in legal strategies and increase success in achieving lasting results for clients. Adversaries may be more inclined to settle favorably with the provider's clients if the provider has a solid reputation for legal work. Decision-makers may be more attentive and responsive to positions presented by the provider on behalf of its clients.

Institutional stature and credibility also promote high morale and discourage turnover as staff and others providing service to clients find increased satisfaction being part of an institution that commands the respect of clients and the community at large. The recognized success of a provider can also enhance its recruitment of new staff. Top-flight candidates for employment are more likely seek to work for a well regarded organization than for one with an uncertain reputation. Outside Attorneys are also more likely to volunteer to work with a highly respected organization, particularly when the provider seeks assistance with complex work calling for a commitment of significant resources.

Finally, establishing institutional stature and credibility is an important ingredient of successful fundraising. Private and public funders are attracted to organizations with proven capability and a positive reputation for accomplishment. Funders need to have confidence that issues identified by a provider are important to address and that the provider has the capacity to respond.

Means of achieving institutional stature and credibility

Decision-makers. The provider should understand the community in which it operates and be aware of the key decision-makers who affect low income persons. This will include judges, other lawyers, legislators, hearing officers, and public and quasi-public officials. It will also include others who may be less obvious, such as financial, business, labor, medical and religious leaders.

The most important way to establish a presence with key decision-makers is through the consistent production of high quality legal work that accomplishes lasting results for low income persons. Attorneys and judges who are familiar with the provider's legal work should know that it handles all cases thoroughly and expertly. Legal work should be conducted skillfully with the demonstrable purpose of remedying significant problems for clients. Practitioners should be known for their willingness to represent their clients forcefully and competently to accomplish meaningful results for them.

Relations with all decision-makers should be honest and forthright. Where appropriate, the provider should reach out to decision-makers to foster a reputation as a knowledgeable and mature resource on issues that affect the low income community.

The low income community. The provider's stature with the low income population is developed through legal assistance that is responsive to low income person's legal needs and that is successful in achieving lasting results on their behalf. Its stature and credibility also depend on the provider operating in ways that are respectful of clients. The provider should have established its presence in the communities it serves by effective outreach and by offering a range of assistance that is responsive to identified needs of low income persons.

Many aspects of a provider's operation over time affect its reputation and its ability to command respect in the low income community. Its intake system needs to be accessible and responsive, and it needs to deal with all the low income communities it serves in a culturally competent manner. Its offices and other facilities should project an appearance that conveys competence and professionalism to clients and others. Managers and practitioners should realize that mundane aspects of daily operation, such as unconventional dress by staff, may be seen as deliberate challenges to community standards and may undermine respect for the institution.