A legal aid organization should deploy its legal resources strategically, consistent with its mission, to deliver effective and efficient legal services to individuals and communities and to create positive change in the systems that impact those communities..
Virtually every legal aid organization faces the same central dilemma: How to balance high - sometimes overwhelming - demand for service with limited financial resources. Whether the agency's mission is to provide a broad range of legal assistance over a wide geographic area or a more narrowly focused service to a limited client base, demand inevitably exceeds capacity. As a result, the organization must make difficult choices about how much work it can do within its resources, the type of work it can do, and who will receive its services. To offer high-quality legal services, the organization must make these choices strategically and thoughtfully and in a manner that ensures that limited resources do not impair the highest-quality representation and advocacy fromThe organization should employ best practices and cutting-edge resources to ensure effective and efficient delivery of legal services in a manner that ensures equitable access to all populations within its service area. The organization must regularly reassess these choices to adjust to the inevitable changes that occur in the legal needs and demographics of its constituents, the development of new delivery methods, and the scope of its available resources.
A civil legal aid organization must have a clear and intentional strategy for how it will deploy its limited resources. The organization must, as much as possible, make its resource allocation decisions proactively, rather than only reacting to external demands. Strategic decision-making must encompass the full range of factors that impact the provision of legal services:
- The size and geographic distribution of the organization's target communities.
- The demographics of the organization's target client base, with a particular focus on marginalized communities, primary languages, and other factors that impact access to services.
- The legal needs of the target communities.
- The resources, including staffing, overhead, technology, and support services, needed to meet those needs.
- The resources actually available to the organization, and how those resources may be developed and expanded.
- The resources available to meet those needs offered by other service organizations, and the systems available to coordinate services between agencies.
- How the organization's intake and referral systems are designed to direct community members to appropriate and effective services.
- How the organization's internal systems are designed to deliver those services.
Strategic deployment of services requires coordinated effort across the organization. The organization's leadership must make thoughtful and intentional decisions about which services will be provided and the criteria for how they will be deployed to meet community needs. Leadership must ensure ongoing and effective communication among agency staff and with outside partners to ensure that decision-makers have accurate and up-to-date information about the factors that impact resource allocation. All staff must be trained and supervised to ensure the coordinated implementation of these strategic decisions.
Fulfillment of Mission
Legal aid organizations differ significantly in the types of service they are designed to provide. Many organizations are large, general service agencies whose mission is to offer a broad range of legal assistance to all client-eligible individuals in its target region. Other organizations focus on a specific demographic community or legal problem. Some organizations may be the sole legal aid entity in a region for its type of service, while other organizations operate within a system of multiple legal aid entities. No matter the size and goal of the organization, it is imperative that it have a clearly defined mission statement that identifies both its target communities and the type of service it will provide. This mission should be clearly and publicly stated. The mission should be developed in coordination with other similar organizations to avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts. The mission should be inclusive of the full range of diverse populations within the organization's service area. The mission statement should then become the basis for all strategic decision-making about the delivery of legal services by the organization.
Given the limited funding faced by civil legal aid organizations, a central consideration of effective service provision is efficiency - getting the most impact out of the available resources. Strategic decisions around efficiency can take many forms. Deploying large amounts of staff time to individual cases means that fewer people may be served as clients, but those resources may be needed to achieve outcomes that impact a broad sector of the organization's target community. Provision of limited-scope representation or referral through a helpline may be an effective alternative solution to serving the legal needs of many people, but efficient service delivery does not simply mean talking to more people or taking more cases. Instead, strategic efficiency means using a range of deliberate strategies to create the greatest positive impact for constituent communities within the organization's means.
The organization must ensure that it has systems in place to promote the efficient delivery of services. For individual representation, systems must ensure timely and equitable screening and intake of new clients, assignment to practitioners, and initiation of legal assistance, especially for time-sensitive legal matters. Organizations must deploy technologies to promote easy and efficient case management andSystems must be in place for effective communication both within the agency and with clients and community partners. Technology is also a central method of efficient delivery and outreach to constituent communities, through websites and social media. Organizations must stay abreast of new developments in technologies to support their work and ensure efficient use of resources. While technology can be expensive to acquire and maintain, outdated and ineffective systems ultimately cost more to the agency in lost time and wasted effort.
Whatever the scope of service it determines to offer, the organization must focus on delivering competent and effective legal service. Effective legal assistance can mean many things: The client "won" the case; a negative outcome was averted; the client received information to improve the ability to self-advocate; the agency provided assistance to historically underserved groups; a supportive law was enacted, or a harmful policy removed; or a community's resources were enhanced and its members empowered to improve their lives.
To maximize the effectiveness of its resources, an organization must identify those legal issues for which it will offer full representation, and which can be provided by other delivery methods, including limited-scope representation, information and referral, community outreach and education, and advocacy in various arenas. An organization must identify the types of clients for whom limited-scope representation would not be appropriate because of barriers related to language, culture, ability, lack of access to technology or transportation, family and work barriers, or similar factors. The organization similarly must identify legal issues where individual representation may have less impact than various types of short-term service or systemic advocacy.
Advocates should utilize all available means of technology to ensure equitable access to effective legal services within a territory. For example, rural areas should not be limited to phone representation or limited-scope representation simply because of the cost or time associated with travel. The ability to conduct meetings and hearings remotely should be supported by the organization and encouraged by practitioners with their clients when appropriate so that legal services may be more efficiently and effectively provided to clients.
Service Delivery and Funding
Effective service delivery requires that the organization have sufficient resources to support those services. In determining what level of service to provide in any area, the organization must identify and deploy the resources to that area sufficient to support the work. For example, some jurisdictions have mandated civil "right-to-counsel" organizations to guarantee representation to tenants in eviction cases or have enacted legislation to require representation for respondents in involuntaryIn some cases, though, these initiatives turn into unfunded mandates, where the right to counsel does not come with funding to pay for those lawyers. If an organization determines to take on such a project, it must ensure that it will receive sufficient funding to hire enough staff to fulfill the mandate, and not be forced to divert resources from other important projects or rely only on volunteers to perform the work.
Similarly, an organization must consider how the strategic choices around service provision intersect with the availability of funding. For most organizations, the ideal is to have a substantial base of "general funding" - grants or other funding sources that may be used to support a broad range of legal services, with minimal restrictions regarding the demographics of the client or the subject matter of the representation. Historically, many agencies were founded with this kind of general support, through federal or state funders or client trust fund dollars intended broadly to support the legal needs of low-income communities. Over time, however, these funding sources have not kept pace with inflation, and agencies have been forced to seek other funds to maintain adequate service levels to clients.
These alternate funding sources, however, often are available only to provide a certain kind of legal service or to serve a particular community. Such funding is also typically time-limited, with no guarantee of ongoing support. Organizations must then decide whether this targeted funding fits within its mission and service delivery strategy, and whether it will be able to continue the work supported by the grant once the money runs out. The danger faced by organizations is that the desire for increased funding may drive decisions about what kinds of service to deliver. It is critical that, in considering any new funding source, the organization makes decisions within the framework of its mission and overall service delivery plan, to ensure that the agency maintains an effective system for the provision of legal services and does not drift from that mission, or constantly adjust the kind of cases it will take on, simply because a particular grant becomes available.
Each of the ways that legal services can be "effective" needs to be measured by the organization. The only way for an organization to know that its services are having the desired result is to implement methods of observation and data collection to measure theThe organization must, as part of its strategic decision-making, implement methods to measure the impact and outcomes of its work. An organization should constantly strive to increase the effectiveness of the strategies that it pursues. It should examine whether established strategies are still effective at achieving successful individual outcomes and lasting results for the entire low-income community and should explore new approaches to advocacy that evolve as new issues arise.
Management should encourage staff to stay abreast of changes among the issues that affect the communities it serves, including: 1) changes in the economy; 2) changes in patterns of discrimination across protected classes; 3) new governmental policies and practices of agencies that affect the client population; and 4) the development of new technologies. Such changes can give rise to new legal issues and to new strategies to address old and new legal problems. The organization must participate in the various forums in which such issues and strategies are discussed, both locally and nationally. The organization must then account for these developments in its periodic self-assessment and adjust its delivery methods to address these changes.
Part of a Statewide System of Service Delivery
No organization can deliver every type of service to every eligible client or community. Some organizations are organized to provide extensive individual representation over a broad range of areas. Other organizations may offer only limited-scope representation, short-term advice or pro se assistance, or intake and referral for a regional or statewide legal aid delivery system. Organizations that do not themselves offer full representation should have cooperative arrangements, consistent with professional conduct rules relating to confidentiality of information, with other entities that provide such representation and to which they can refer clients. All organizations should participate in and support statewide and regional systems that have the capacity collectively to offer a full range of services to all relevantIn a geographic area in which there is only one organization, that organization should offer full representation as part of its strategic service delivery system, along with a range of other service delivery models, to ensure broad and effective response to the community's legal needs.