Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 6.5 on Training

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A provider should provide access to ongoing and comprehensive training for all personnel.


General considerations

Training is an essential vehicle for ensuring the effective operation of a legal aid provider and its provision of high quality, effective assistance that responds to the needs of low income communities. It is an effective means for a provider to promote a culture that shares information, retains high quality staff and devises innovative methods to serve low income communities.

A provider should allocate sufficient resources for training to assure that inexperienced individuals become proficient and that more experienced personnel increase their level of competence. A provider should develop and implement entry level and ongoing training activities within the program or assure access to outside training that is timely, relevant and responsive to ongoing professional development needs of all personnel.

Training programs should respond to the provider's specific needs using established instruction methods that promote active, engaged and sequential learning. They should impart knowledge, skills and outlook necessary for all personnel to fulfill their job functions, including managers and supervisors, accounting and human resource personnel, support staff and advocacy staff. Training should also impart key provider values, including ethical obligations, appropriate means of demonstrating respect for clients, and commitment to the provider's mission. The provider's training agenda should be updated regularly in response to emerging staff and client needs.

Training of all personnel

Training should address the full range of substantive practices and skills that all personnel need to carry out their job duties efficiently and effectively. Practitioners should be familiar with the substantive legal matters low income persons face and should possess the skills necessary to assist them effectively.

It is also important that staff not directly involved in assisting clients be skilled and effective at their job function. All aspects of a provider's operation affect its stature and credibility as an effective law firm. The professionalism with which pleadings, letters and e-mails are prepared, for instance, and the courtesy with which people are treated on the telephones reflect on the quality of work that the provider produces. How well the provider's staff address issues such as accounting for its funds and meeting its legal obligations similarly affect its reputation as an effective organization.

Outside practitioners who represent clients on behalf of the provider on a contract or a volunteer basis should also be offered training opportunities, particularly if they are assisting clients in unfamiliar areas. The provider can also call upon outside attorneys to provide training for its staff in areas in which they have special expertise pertinent to the work of the provider. Participation by volunteer attorneys in the provider's training events, both as trainers and trainees, can enhance recruitment and retention of participating attorneys and facilitate their integration into the program.

Areas of training

Training should be tailored to the priorities set by the provider, the delivery methods used and its method of operating and should impart the knowledge, skills and values pertinent to each. The provider's professional development agenda should include a broad range of training offered directly by it as well as by state, regional and national entities that make training opportunities and support available. It should also take advantage of learning opportunities that are available to practitioners and others through their participation on task forces and other substantive networks.

  • Training should be offered related to the current substantive work of the provider. Providers that engage in community economic development or legislative and administrative advocacy, for example, should offer instruction in the law and procedures that are pertinent to its work in the area.
  • Training should also address basic skills necessary to serve clients and others effectively, including for instance, trial skills, use of discovery, fact finding techniques, negotiation and interview techniques.
  • Through training and other networking opportunities, staff should learn about emerging legal issues and devise creative and new approaches to addressing problems facing low income communities.
  • Training should be offered to support the development of emerging and existing leaders. It should also address the various contexts in which leadership is exercised such as in management, advocacy and involvement with community groups. Inviting promising leaders to serve as trainers in areas in which they have expertise can itself serve as a vehicle to further their leadership opportunities.
  • Accounting and human resources personnel should be given training in the skills and the substantive knowledge pertinent to their work and regarding the internal systems used by the provider in their area of responsibility.
  • Training should be provided in the use of technology and the systems that the provider utilizes in its internal operations, including the telephone system and case management and other software that is part of the provider's suite of computer applications. Staff should be trained in the appropriate use of e-mails and other forms of electronic communication.
  • New staff should be offered thorough orientation in program operation as well as the expectations associated with their position in the organization.
  • Training should be provided that conveys the knowledge, skills and values that the provider's staff and outside attorneys need to interact effectively with low income persons, including those from culturally diverse communities.

Training methods: The provider should use a variety of training techniques that are effective for individuals with different learning styles, including the majority who learn best in interactive settings and with hands-on experience with training materials. The ideal training agenda integrates the learning into practice. Other staff who will be needed to help the recipient of training implement new knowledge and skills, such as supervisors, should be active participants in training and follow-up. Mentoring and other leadership roles require specific skills, and training should be available where needed.

The provider should be aware of the many aspects of its operation that offer learning opportunities. Co-counseling and other joint work with more experienced practitioners, for example, are excellent ways for staff to learn through example and direct interchange. Supervision typically offers many opportunities for the supervisor to teach the person being supervised and should be seen as an essential aspect of the provider’s training and professional development strategies. Similarly, staff participation in state and regional task forces often provides exposure to informal training opportunities.

The provider should take advantage of the opportunities that technology offers for making training available to staff with different learning styles and to personnel who are isolated by geographic distance and other barriers. Long-distance training techniques and on-line training modules may be helpful to persons who learn better in settings where they proceed at their own pace. Appropriately sequenced distance learning programs also provide opportunities for staff to assimilate course material over time and to apply new knowledge and skills to their actual work. While it may not be cost-effective for staff in distant rural offices to travel many hours for a training that lasts only several hours, participation by video conference or on-line access to the materials may offer access to timely and relevant training.

The provider should regularly evaluate the effectiveness of its training efforts. Training should be evaluated from several perspectives: 1) Did the participants learn the intended skills and knowledge? 2) Were participants able to use the skills and knowledge in their work? 3) Did the skills and knowledge lead to improved outcomes in the work? Ideally, evaluations should be conducted both at the conclusion of each training and after several months in order to assess the extent to which participants have been able to put new learning into practice and have seen positive results.

When used properly, training evaluations can help a provider improve the quality and effectiveness of its strategies for professional development. They are also a vehicle for identifying topics for follow-up seminars and new courses.

Budgeting adequate resources and taking advantage of external training opportunities

A provider should budget sufficient resources for it to develop and implement internal training and to make outside training opportunities available as appropriate. A provider facing budget reductions should resist the temptation to make disproportionate cuts in training. Expertise of current staff is crucial to maintaining a capacity for quality representation, and it is short-sighted and ultimately costly to postpone or eliminate training as a response to limited funding. To maximize the efficient use of available resources to provide high quality training for its staff, a provider should participate in statewide, regional, and national efforts to develop and provide training. Participation in joint efforts will allow the provider to avoid duplicating the efforts of others in the delivery system and to take advantage of economies of scale. The provider should take advantage of relevant events sponsored by bar continuing legal education programs, national or state advocacy organizations, community or special interest advocacy groups and other outside sources.