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Standard 2.2 on Effective Leadership

Standard 2.1 | Table of Contents |  Standard 2.3


Legal aid organizations must have effective leadership that establishes and maintains a shared sense of vision and mission. Organization leadership emphasizes and models teamwork, transparency, excellence, and innovation, along with commitment to, and achievement of, the organization's goals and objectives. Organization leaders must also ensure that the many systems required for a complex organization are in place and functioning.


General Considerations

Good leadership and strong internal operations are vital to organizational effectiveness. Organizational instability and problems, in contrast, distract from, reduce, and can ultimately destroy effective advocacy for the legal aid organization's clients and communities, not to mention organizational existence. As indicated in Standard 1.1, the most important responsibility of the governing body, collectively and individually, for a legal services organization is the selection and support of an effective leader and/or leadership team. The following commentary presents and discusses many of the organization's - and its leaders' - responsibilities, and categorizes those that are critical, unavoidable, and legally required with the command "must." In the interest of recognizing that some small organizations do not possess the financial and human resources that they need, responsibilities that do not rise to critical, unavoidable, and legally required will be characterized with the recommendation "should."

Strategic Plan

The governing body should develop and implement a concise, comprehensive, and compelling strategic plan built around its mission. The plan should detail aspirational goals, measurable objectives and strategies, key performance indicators (KPIs), timelines, revenue strategies and projections, and indicate the persons or teams responsible for achievement. The governing body should deploy resources strategically to best serve organizational goals and constituencies in case acceptance, with and how frequently the factors are evaluated to accommodate changing demographics and legal needs. The organization’s case acceptance policy should allocate resources to the legal problems identified as priorities in the organization's planning process and should control demands on the organization’s resources and its practitioners’ available time to ensure high-quality assistance provided to persons served. Leadership staff should present quarterly one - to three-page dashboards using graphs, icons, and visuals to all board and staff members that highlight KPIs around objectives for case and project outcomes, financial health, and revenue metrics. 

Technology Infrastructure and Administration

Organizational leadership is responsible for ensuring the organization obtains and maintains an appropriate technology infrastructure as recommended in Section 3.10 on "Effective Use of Technology." They should provide up-to-date technology tools for practitioners, outside practitioners, advocates, and administrative staff that maximize efficiency and speed of operations, effectiveness in meeting demands, and confidentiality and data security of client and administrative information. Many state supreme courts have amended their professional conduct rules relating to lawyers' competence obligations to provide that lawyers' obligations to keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice includes the risks and benefits of relevant technology and that lawyers have an obligation not only to take reasonable steps to avoid the inadvertent and unauthorized disclosure of confidential client information, but also unauthorized access to it.The organization's leadership must ensure that those standards are met by practitioners. The organization's employees who are accessing confidential client or organizational information online, and are using their personal devices to do so, present additional opportunities for unauthorized disclosure, and the governing body should put in place policies to address that so its practitioners can meet their ethical obligations.

An organization should have internal file maintenance and calendaring systems and clear policies to help manage its legal work, note important deadlines, check for potential conflicts of interest, and properly account for client trust funds. 

Organizations must have technology policies advising employees how to adequately protect client data on their work and personal devices and when communicating with people outside of the organization, including on use of public Wi-Fi, as well as how to respond in the event of a security breach.

The technology tools available to legal aid organizations are more common and prolific than ever before. Legal aid organizations need to do their due diligence before acquiring or using such tools, and they should also develop their own standards for the acquisition of such technologies. Factors to be considered should include security, privacy, record retention, data sharing, ADA accessibility, feedback loops, transparency and bias issues relating to artificial intelligence tools, and willingness of the company that creates the technology to modify their tools based on the organization’s input or end-user feedback input. Practitioners also need to be able to describe to clients, when relevant, the benefits and risks of using those tools, including those that might pose a risk or threat of harm if used by clients.

Financial Administration

The organization's financial policies and procedures must comply with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), requirements of funding sources, and federal, state, and local government regulations. The organization must have internal controls and effective budget planning, monitoring, and reporting. Staff and board financial leaders should develop multi-year budget forecasts, approved by the board, which include detailed income and expense projections, and review these projections regularly with the board of directors' finance committee. The board should also have financial reserve policies requiring prudent reserves for each year of the multi-year budget forecast. 

An important aspect of financial administration is the management and protection of client funds; the organization's practitioners and outside practitioners have duties to comply with applicable professional conduct and other court rules and laws to protect client and third party funds and property.As the organization falls under the definition of law firm in the Model Rules of Professional Conductits lawyers must ensure that the organization's funds are not commingled with client funds. The organization should establish separate client trust accounts for money received from or on behalf of clients or third parties. Examples include funds deposited by a client toward possible settlement (e.g., for payment of past due rent), or funds received from a settlement that are due to a client. The organization should participate in the Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts program that exists in each state. 

The organization should maintain records of all client funds that provide immediate and accurate information on the amount held and expenditures made to and on behalf of each client.An organization should have a system to ensure that all funds belonging to the client and being held by the organization are returned to the client when appropriate and follow applicable state laws regarding the disposition of funds that cannot be returned because the client cannot be located. Assuming no costs are advanced by the client, costs paid by an organization on behalf of a client should be paid from the organization's budget.

Revenue and Fundraising

Organizations should create and implement grant and fundraising plans that support the strategic plan and effectively leverage all appropriate revenue domains - individuals, corporations, foundations, government at all levels, the United Way, Area Agencies on Aging, and faith communities - using dedicated staff and effective volunteers. Attorney's fees should be sought when available and appropriate, and staff should be given clear guidance on when and how to seek and negotiate attorney's fees. To the extent that clients are asked to contribute to case expenses or the costs of representation within applicable law and funder requirements, the practice of charging and collecting fees must not influence the mission, priorities, case selection, and ethical and moral responsibilities of the organization and its attorneys regarding their clients. 

The organization should ensure that adequate staff capacity exists to identify potential funding sources and to pursue them successfully. It should also budget adequate resources to cover expenditures associated with resource development, including items such as the cost of developing materials, travel, and purchasing and maintaining the necessary technology. Large organizations should consider establishing a dedicated resource development department to work with the governing body, the chief executive, and others responsible for fundraising. Smaller organizations may want to retain a fundraising consultant to work with staff members who are principally responsible for the organization's fundraising. Very small organizations may have to rely on the efforts of a resource development committee of the governing body supported by the chief executive or a fundraising consultant for its fundraising efforts. Consultants who specialize in fundraising may be helpful to organizations of any size.

The organization should be aware of available sources of funds and the organization's resource development staff should make deliberate choices among potential funding sources and strategies to tap those most likely to produce income to support the organization's work. Others, such as efforts to obtain funding from a state legislature or from state bar dues check-offs or attorney registration fees, involve working in concert with others in the state or regional delivery system, including other organizations and the organized bar.Some fundraising efforts may be undertaken jointly with others, for example, to obtain funds that may be shared among a group of participating organizations or to establish a multi-organization project to offer services.

Human Resources Administration

The organization should promote organizational excellence through competitive salaries and the recruitment, management, and retention of a high-performing, diverse workforce that achieves its mission and goals.The organization develops and communicates sound policies and procedures that ensure compliance with applicable federal, state, and local human resources laws and has a knowledgeable, accessible, and professional staff in the areas of recruitment and retention, training, professional development, compensation and benefits, performance appraisal, and the diversity of client populations and languages.

Training for Intake Personnel

Standard 6.6 addresses training for all staff members. Personnel involved in intake should receive special attention in training, including technology systems, trauma-informed care, and interviewing skills, because they are often laypersons who conduct each organization's vast majority of client and potential client interactions. Their effective interviewing of applicants and operation of technology systems are vital to the timely processing of applications and provision of appropriate triage, advice, brief service, and internal or external referral. Training should emphasize the importance of not providing legal advice (for non-attorney personnel) and reinforce the importance for all personnel of treating applicants with dignity and respect. Feedback opportunities for applicants should be clearly visible and enabled. Feedback will be important if intake and triage, whether based on trained personnel or on rule-based decision tools and apps, are to operate correctly and quickly, and should identify any biases or problems to be corrected.

Overall Management and Administration

All aspects of organizational administration should be well-managed; these aspects include management structure, processes, and systems to ensure compliance with all funder requirements and state and federal law, capacity to address problems quickly and effectively, robust intra-staff and staff-management communications, effective administrative procedures, allocation of appropriate resources to management functions, and evaluations on a defined periodic basis of administrative operations.