Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 2.2 on Delivery Structure

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Standard

Within the context of its regional and statewide delivery system, a provider should establish delivery mechanisms that effectively and efficiently meet its low income communities' legal needs.

Commentary

General considerations

A legal aid provider should establish an overall delivery structure and choose the delivery mechanisms that utilize limited resources effectively to respond to the most compelling, unmet legal problems facing members of the population it serves. The provider's approach to delivery should be appropriate to the particular circumstances in which it operates and should balance four goals:

  • To be effective in responding to the most compelling, unmet legal needs of the low income population it serves;
  • To assure the delivery of high quality assistance;
  • To utilize its resources efficiently; and
  • To facilitate access for members of its client communities to assistance appropriate to their legal needs.

Decisions about each provider's delivery structure should be made in the context of the local, regional and statewide systems of which the provider is a part. The provider should work with other providers to establish a unified delivery structure in which participating organizations complement and support each other's efforts to respond fully to the legal needs of the low income population.

The provider also needs to determine how technology will be used as part of its efforts to meet the needs of clients. Technology is important as a tool to support effective work on behalf of clients and efficient administration of the provider. Information technology is also an increasingly important component of methods employed to provide assistance directly to members of low income communities.

There are a number of delivery mechanisms that a provider can utilize to serve its constituents. The provider should be familiar with new delivery techniques and should determine if they are appropriate to meet the needs of the low income population it serves. Delivery techniques evolve with changes in the practice of law, with the adoption of new advocacy strategies, with the advent of new technologies and with successful experiments in reaching out to and serving low income clients. Each provider should stay abreast of such changes and should take advantage of new delivery approaches that may increase its capacity to serve its clients effectively and efficiently.

There are many examples of such changes and more will no doubt evolve over time. A few examples illustrate the point:

  • High volume, legal advice offered by telephone, sometimes referred to as hotlines, evolved rapidly when information technology make it possible to establish and supervise such systems more easily.
  • Some providers with large, sparsely populated rural areas use video conferencing as a way to reach out to persons in isolated hard to reach places.
  • Technology has increased the capacity of providers to support complex advocacy in isolated offices.
  • Websites and kiosks impart legal information to members of low income communities and provide useful guidance in areas of the law that lend themselves to such assistance.
  • Various strategies aimed at community economic development have developed in the face of increasing need for members of client communities to find and keep employment.

As the delivery of legal services has evolved, many providers have experimented with new techniques that offer limited representation or legal information to large numbers of persons who have commonly occurring legal problems. The techniques take advantage of developments in technology, changes in how courts operate and other changes in the practice to reach large numbers of people in need. One feature of these models is that they can provide services to large numbers of clients with a smaller expenditure of the provider's resources than is required by many forms of full representation.

The four goals of 1) effectiveness responding to legal needs, 2) high quality, 3) efficiency and 4) access are important for a provider to keep in mind when deciding how to fold new delivery techniques into its overall delivery approach. On the one hand, many of the approaches economically provide access to assistance for large numbers of client eligible persons. On the other hand, some legal problems cannot be effectively resolved without costlier form of representation.

All approaches need to be measured against the standard of whether they effectively respond to compelling, unmet legal needs of low income persons. Efficiency should be measured in terms of cost-effective use of resources to accomplish a meaningful result. Providers, therefore, should not choose an approach based only on the number of persons able to be served - which can be a temptation if a provider feels pressure, real or imagined, to show funders and others results in terms of quantity of cases closed.

Designing its delivery structure also entails the provider making choices about what types of representation are appropriate to respond to the needs of the client population it serves, including whether it will engage in legislative and administrative advocacy or community economic development. The provider also needs to determine the degree to which offering community legal education and legal information will be part of its approach to serving the low income communities in its service area.

Design of the structure and selection of the mechanisms for the delivery of legal aid involves many decisions about who will perform legal work - staff attorneys, outside attorneys, and non‑attorney practitioners - and how those practitioners will be deployed in the provider's service area. Issues associated with deployment and utilization of personnel are discussed in the commentaries to a number of Standards.

Delivery in Rural Areas

Rural areas present special challenges to be addressed in establishing a delivery structure and allocating resources. Substantial distances and transportation costs may mean a central office is physically accessible only to those who live within a short radius; yet widely dispersed small offices can be costly and relatively inefficient. A legal aid provider is not likely to have enough resources to staff branch offices adequately in each community within its service area, although in some communities, it may be able to establish minimally staffed satellite offices supported from a larger office.

Providers serving sparsely populated rural areas should establish contact with client and community groups, bar associations, social service agencies, employment services and others familiar with the legal needs of the low income population throughout its service area in order to stay informed about serious issues affecting clients to enable them to respond with effective legal services where appropriate.

Providers should consider a variety of means to provide services in rural areas and should explore new opportunities for use of technology and other developments that may facilitate access for rural clients. A number of techniques are available and more are likely to evolve with advances in information technology:

  • Centralized telephone intake and the provision of legal advice and limited intervention by phone can increase the provider's capacity to reach otherwise isolated clients. Advances in technology can help overcome some of the limitations of serving clients remotely by telephone, particularly with regard to the transfer of documents important to a case.
  • Private attorneys in local communities who are willing to represent eligible clients for no or limited compensation can substantially improve a provider's capacity to make services available where clients live. The provider should address how matters will be handled when there are conflicts of interest or substantive issues with which the local attorneys are unfamiliar.
  • Use of circuit‑riding and mobile vans can provide periodic, temporary presence in local communities. Appropriate use of technology may ameliorate the potential loss of efficiency resulting from practitioners' travel time and their lack of ready access to items such as client files and legal research materials.
  • Some isolated rural clients can be served through video conferencing in which computers and other necessary equipment are located in local organizations, such as social service agencies, churches and libraries. Such systems do permit a full interview and something akin to face to face contact. They do not resolve problems associated with the need for a court appearance on behalf of the client, although some courts have experimented with video appearances. As technology and rural internet access improve such approaches are likely to increase in effectiveness.
  • Local paralegals and lay advocates working in a satellite office can provide intake and refer cases to a fully staffed office for representation, when necessary. They can also provide advice, under the remote supervision of a lawyer, and represent clients directly in circumstances where non‑attorney assistance to clients is permitted by law.
  • Community legal education offered through websites, limited access television channels and other electronic media may advise clients of their rights and responsibilities and provide them legal information to help them to avoid incurring problems or to respond without direct representation. The provider may also offer self-help materials to assist persons with pro se representation, when it is appropriate. The provider should be aware of the limitations that exist to access to the web because of limited bandwidth in many rural areas and the lack of access to computers among many low income persons living in rural areas.

The number, size and location of offices

Decisions about the number, size and location of provider offices are closely related to decisions about the types of practitioners and the extent of specialization. Such decisions will be influenced by considerations of cost‑effectiveness, the availability of private attorneys throughout the service area, staff recruitment issues and the need for staff development and quality assurance. A balance needs to be struck between direct physical access for clients and the provider's need to address priorities efficiently and with high quality representation.

Experience indicates that in many cases clients may be served more efficiently and effectively through large offices that serve large areas. Such offices may facilitate the supervision and training of staff and the implementation and operation of law practice systems. The provider has greater flexibility regarding specialization, and patterns of work assignment. Having practitioners work in close proximity with others sharing the same goals may stimulate creativity and proficiency. The cost of maintaining small offices is relatively high, because of disproportionately higher overhead and the loss of economies of scale.

These considerations need to be balanced against the important fact that having a physical presence in the communities makes a significant difference in access for clients and the capacity of the provider to engage the low income communities that it serves. Experience indicates that the number of clients that use the services of a legal aid provider is higher in communities in which it has an office.

The physical presence of practitioners may be significant to clients who are unaccustomed to dealing with lawyers. Particularly when a provider is reaching into areas it has not previously served, it may need to encourage clients to seek out legal services. Moreover, the physical presence of a legal aid provider often results in more oversight of agencies that affect the low income population, such as housing authorities, departments of social services and social security agencies.

Staff in small offices are likely to find it easier to learn about the communities they serve, to develop constructive relationships with the bar, courts and social service agencies, and to become familiar with local practice customs.

Thus, a major disadvantage of centralization is the danger of the provider's isolation from distant segments of its service area. For rural legal aid providers serving extremely large geographic expanses, consolidation may be infeasible. Some providers serve client eligible populations that are hundreds of miles from any large office. The resources available, however, may only support offices with a small staff. Such offices often face problems recruiting advocates because of their remoteness from large population centers. Loss of even one staff member, particularly a lawyer, can disrupt services significantly while the person is being replaced.

There are no easy answers regarding how a provider should structure itself in terms of the size, number and location of offices. Whatever choices are made, it is important that the provider seek to mitigate the disadvantages that the option presents.

If a provider disperses staff in small offices, it should adopt a variety of strategies that will help to overcome the isolation of the staff. Failure to do so may lead to staff frustration, stifle the incentive for professional growth, and contribute to turnover. Strategic use of technology may ameliorate such consequences. Web-based case management systems offer the possibility of effective long distance supervision and oversight of the legal work of an inexperienced practitioner. E-mail lists and other electronic means of linking experienced practitioners with those who are less experienced can significantly reduce a debilitating sense of isolation. Training modules that rely on long-distance learning similarly can help support the professional development of staff in remote offices.

Conversely, a provider with consolidated offices should take positive steps to reach out to isolated parts of its service area and to assure wide distribution of information about legal aid. Contact with client groups, with other organizations concerned with the interests of the poor, and with persons familiar with the legal problems in those areas can help the provider identify and respond to legal needs in areas without an office. Technology also offers support for contact with individual clients through video conferencing.

Effective utilization of private attorneys can greatly facilitate a provider's efforts to provide services directly to clients in the communities and neighborhoods where they live. In many large rural areas, the only practical way to provide service in some isolated communities may be through the volunteer or compensated efforts of private attorneys. There may be practical limitations to this, however, as some rural areas and some urban neighborhoods have few or no practicing private attorneys located in or near them.

Specialization

One choice that a provider faces in organizing its delivery structure is the degree to which it will have its staff specialize in specific substantive areas of the law, such as housing, or on discrete representation tasks, such as appellate work, legislative representation, or community education. There are gradations from absolute specialization in which practitioners focus on a relatively narrow issue to generalists who address whatever issue they encounter.

The choice between specialization and a generalist practice is not absolute and there are a number of models that may be appropriate for a provider. Practitioners, for instance, may be expected to develop special expertise in one or two substantive areas, while occasionally taking on a matter outside their field of concentration. Some experienced practitioners may function as generalists, supervising the work of less experienced staff who concentrate on one or two areas of focus in order to develop pertinent expertise quickly.

The degree to which provider relies on specialists or generalists should be guided by its priorities, how its resources are deployed and the nature of its service area. Narrow specialization, for instance, presupposes a staff of sufficient size for it to be practical. A small funding base or geographic factors, such as a very large rural service area, which dictate small offices will likely not permit narrow specialization in those offices.

There are advantages and disadvantages to whatever structure is chosen. Specialization offers a number of advantages for providers. It allows inexperienced practitioners to master an area of law relatively quickly. Experienced specialists may be more able to fashion far‑reaching and creative responses to specific legal issues in substantive areas with which they are deeply familiar.

Organizing into specialty units can facilitate supervision and mentoring of new practitioners. Specialized practitioners can usually handle cases more efficiently and intake and case handling procedures in a specialty unit can be streamlined to expedite the handling of common aspects of repetitive matters. A specialty unit may develop standard forms and procedures for cases in which routine and narrow issues regularly appear. Standard case handling techniques are appropriate if they do not result in important issues being overlooked. Their use should be reevaluated periodically to assure that standardized treatment is still justified by circumstances and that the creativity of practitioners is not stifled in out‑of‑the ordinary cases.

Specialization can also have disadvantages. Specialization may inhibit identification of problems that fall outside the specialty areas of an office. It may also inhibit change by the provider to respond to new areas of the law that emerge and call for substantive knowledge and strategic approaches that are unfamiliar to the specialists. Practitioners who narrowly specialize and do not get effective oversight and supervision may become isolated in their practice specialty, treating cases in a routine fashion.

Utilization of generalists also has benefits. Generalist practitioners develop a wider range of experience and may be better able to identify ancillary issues in a client's overall circumstances. They are more likely to recognize the interconnection among different substantive areas. Offices that operate with generalists can more easily adapt to personnel changes, particularly in a smaller office where loss of a specialist can severely disrupt office operations.

In a non-specialized practice, however, inexperienced practitioners may be less efficient and effective because they are required to research a broader range of unrelated and unfamiliar issues. They may miss subtle aspects of important legal issues and may be less able to address an unusual legal problem with dispatch.

Whatever structure a provider adopts, it should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages and should take appropriate steps to address any weaknesses. A large provider with many small offices, for example, may create internal substantive task forces or program-wide substantive units that support the capacity of practitioners in small offices to stay current in new developments in substantive areas in which they represent clients. Inexperienced generalists should be supported by readily accessible research materials, including electronically based manuals that can quickly point them to the appropriate law and strategy. Generalist should have access to e-mail lists and other sources of guidance from more experienced practitioners. A well organized regional or statewide system can substantially widen the pool of available experts for such devices.

Providers need to have effective systems to supervise specialists, especially those functioning in a narrow area, to make certain that they do not fall into a routinized approach to their cases and can identify issues, particularly ones that are newly emerging in their area of law. They should also create mechanisms for specialists to interact across substantive lines in order to foster cross fertilization.

A provider should periodically review how it deploys its staff and adjust how it relies on specialists and generalists to reflect changing client needs and staff capabilities.