Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 2.5 on Staff Diversity

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Standard

A provider should take affirmative measures to hire and retain a diverse staff that enhance its ability to respond effectively to the legal needs of low income communities.

Commentary

General considerations

Concerted efforts by a provider to recruit, hire and retain a diverse staff enhance its ability to respond effectively to the low income population it serves. Diversity is an important value for a provider to pursue for a variety of reasons. Diversity in racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds and varied perspectives and beliefs among the provider's staff can give the provider insights that may lead to creative strategies in its daily operations. When a provider operates in a racially, ethnically or culturally diverse area, having a staff that includes people who have similar backgrounds to those in the service area can communicate that the program is committed to diversity internally and thus may have the knowledge, skills and abilities to engage with diverse populations, effectively.

When a provider operates in an area with a highly diverse low income population, or with a large percentage of low income persons of color, it is important that the provider reflect the low income population it serves. Relationships of mutual trust may be developed more readily when clients encounter a staff that reflects the community’s diversity. It is also important to provide support for all staff to develop the appropriate skills to provide service in a culturally competent manner. Hiring persons from culturally and linguistically isolated communities can also enhance a provider's capacity to reach out to and serve those communities.

Diversity serves an important function in strengthening a legal aid provider, independent of its value in improving the provider's capacity to respond effectively to the low income communities it serves. Thus, even in areas that do not have an ethnically or racially diverse population, a provider should seek to have a diversity of background, experience and outlook on its staff.

The provider should appreciate that diversity encompasses a range of characteristics. The most important of these involves race, ethnicity, national origin and gender, which the provider should take affirmative steps to address in its recruitment and hiring. The provider should also recognize the value of diversity with regard to disability, age, religion and sexual orientation. There are also many other characteristics, such as economic class, educational background and experience outside of legal aid that can bring a range of ideas and outlooks that will strengthen the provider.

The provider should create a work environment that is open to all such aspects of diversity, which can serve to strengthen a provider in a number of important ways. Persons who work with colleagues from different backgrounds and experiences and different cultural values often gain a higher level of knowledge about other cultures, empathy for a range of diverse experiences and skills for engaging people from different backgrounds. This knowledge, awareness and skill may enhance their ability to serve a diverse client base. The ability to interact across differences is important not only in relating with individuals from the low income community, but also in interactions within the office. It can also help in the design and implementation of important systems such as intake.

Affirmative efforts to sustain a diverse staff also have an intrinsic value as a conscious effort to overcome unequal treatment of different segments of the society based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, age, gender and sexual orientation. A legal aid provider is engaged in a practice aimed at countering injustice and assuring fair and equal treatment for low income persons and communities. The provider's own recruitment, employment, and contracting practices should reflect that commitment to fairness and equality and should make opportunities available to persons who are subject to discrimination.

Recruitment and retention of a diverse staff

Recruitment of an appropriately diverse staff takes a concerted effort by the provider. It can be particularly challenging to assure racial and ethnic diversity among practitioners and managers, because the pool of available candidates may be small and competition for them intense. The difficulty of recruitment and retention may be exacerbated by the levels of salaries and benefits. It can also be challenging to recruit for and retain a diverse staff in isolated and remote rural offices.

Several factors can assist in the recruitment and retention of a diverse staff. It is important for a provider to have a reputation for effective interaction with the various communities that are served by the provider. A potential recruit who recognizes that the provider makes a significant and successful effort to serve the population with which the person identifies is more likely to want to join that effort.

The provider should also establish effective relationships with potential recruits from law school early in their career. It should interact with law school student associations that are formed by various affinity groups in law schools from which the provider regularly draws applicants. Intern programs that make opportunities available for law students from targeted populations can also enhance the organization's ability to attract such students for permanent employment. A provider may increase the pool of available candidates from diverse backgrounds by pursuing vigorous national and regional recruitment policies.

The provider should recognize that many economic factors affect its ability to retain staff, including offering competitive salaries and benefits and providing retirement benefits for those who make legal aid their career. The provider should also consider a policy to help alleviate the pressures that student loan payments place on recent law graduates, including supporting the creation of loan forgiveness programs in its jurisdiction and adopting its own internal policies to address the problem, if necessary.

The provider should also recognize the importance of maintaining a positive work environment that draws on the strengths of a diverse workforce and consciously works to overcome potential divisions among staff based on difference. While the provider should recruit persons who have the skills and awareness to work effectively in a diverse work environment, it should also recognize that effective management is called for to foster and maintain positive relationships among personnel from diverse backgrounds. The provider should provide training to improve communication skills, strengthen mutual understanding and increase sensitivity among all staff to each other and to the persons served by the provider. The provider should also pursue internal practices, such as mentoring programs, diversity committees and affinity support groups, that respond to the needs of staff members from diverse backgrounds. These kinds of practices will also support recruitment of staff from diverse backgrounds because they help the provider establish a positive reputation for proactively addressing issues of difference within the workplace

Equal employment opportunity

Pursuing diversity in its staff is important for a provider because of the positive impact on its efforts to serve low income persons in its service area. In seeking diversity on its staff, a provider should be aware of and fully comply with federal, state and local laws regarding equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. The provider should also comply with federal and state laws governing the accommodation of persons with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to perform a job.

A provider should pursue appropriate steps, including self analysis of its work force, to assure equal employment opportunity at all levels of the organization. It should act deliberately to assure equal employment opportunity, affirmative action and to comply with laws regarding the hiring of persons with a disability and should assign responsibility to a person with authority and responsibility to monitor its efforts in meeting its responsibilities.