chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Standard 3.3 on Service Delivery to Communities

Standard 3.2 | Table of Contents |  Standard 3.4


A legal aid organization should deploy its resources beyond individual client services to provide legal supports designed to strengthen and develop the organization's constituent communities. 


General Considerations

Many of the challenges facing clients of civil legal service organizations result from the lack of affordable housing, the paucity of goods and services to meet their needs and the lack of available employment to provide needed income. Legal aid client communities often do not have an adequate economic and social infrastructure to meet the needs of their members. Lack of employment opportunities in and near client communities adds to the difficulties encountered by their residents, particularly as an increasing number of low-income persons rely on employment for income. Patterns of systemic discrimination continue to reinforce patterns of marginalization. Systemic inequities also pervade community infrastructures such as transportation and access to communication and broadband networks. Rural areas and marginalized urban communities face additional hurdles when inferior systems do not allow equal access to the means of addressing economic inequity.

These economic disparities, in turn, inevitably increase the number of legal problems facing individuals and families. These problems most clearly arise in legal needs directly related to income, such as increased rates of eviction and foreclosure, debt collection, repossession, and bankruptcy, but also can impact many other areas of need, such as family disputes, access to health care, discrimination, and many other areas. While a legal aid organization can attempt to mitigate the effects of economic disparity one case at a time, a broader approach is to put efforts into addressing the root causes of these problems. 

Legal aid organizations can use several different tools to address community-wide legal issues. One approach is to engage in community economic development (CED), working to remove barriers to economic opportunity and reverse systemic disparities. Another approach is community lawyering, which attempts to reduce barriers by placing legal services directly into community settings and adapting service delivery models to recognize the needs of each community. Community legal education seeks to support communities by providing access to legal information in settings that are readily available to marginalized communities and empowers them to reverse these systemic barriers. Organizations may also engage in impact litigation and systemic advocacy as outlined in Standard 3.4.

Community Economic Development

Community economic development seeks to increase the assets a community needs in order to produce needed housing, goods, and services and provide employment opportunities for low-income persons. Community economic development attempts to build institutions that directly involve members of the low-income community in their design and operation. It seeks to build capacity in communities in ways that place the tools of beneficial community change into the hands of low-income persons. In some circumstances, building capacity to serve and create opportunities for low-income persons may involve working entirely with low-income clients. In others, it may involve working with partners to develop and implement strategies that benefit many, including low-income persons. 

Community economic development may involve several different representational activities: 

  • Addressing legal aspects of the formation of community and business organizations.
  • Counseling clients regarding the legal conduct of business activities. 
  • Providing transactional support, including acquisition of property, financing, development, and compliance with land use and zoning requirements. 
    • Providing representation and advocacy on the expansion of affordable broadband and other utility infrastructure issues. 
    • Assuring compliance with business licensing and employment laws. 
  • Providing representation on issues related to taxation. 
  • Negotiating and drafting loan agreements, leases, and contracts. 
  • Serving as corporate counsel. 
  • Examining and monitoring legislation that could affect clients' projects. 

A wide and varied range of objectives might be accomplished through community economic development. A project might, for example, seek to create childcare centers in low-income communities to serve low-income workers, including persons with early or late shifts for whom child-care is especially problematic. Clients might identify the lack of adequate long-term health care facilities for the elderly and seek to create an enterprise to provide home health care for persons who need it. A project might develop housing for purchase or rental by low-income families or transitional housing for homeless persons. A job placement organization might be developed to locate jobs that pay a decent wage and provide benefits. Or an organization might seek to increase individual assets by setting up a matched savings account fund in which each deposit by a low-income participant is matched by the fund. In many areas, there are likely to be access issues to affordable broadband and electricity. Both are essential components to economic development work for low-income communities. In rural areas there might be a lack of secular non-church-based nonprofits able to house or feed those in need, including trans or divorced women, making it hard for them to obtain services. In addition, the lack of nonprofit infrastructure in rural America and the suburbs makes it harder for those with low earnings to stay safe, fed, and employed, or able to access education and training. 

Community economic development often has more intangible objectives associated with building capacity in the community. It can help in the development of informed and effective leaders. Clients may develop a firmer understanding of how laws create order and opportunity, creating a framework and the insight necessary to bring about change. It can also impart planning and business skills on individuals that can lead to broader change. 

Responsibilities of the organization. A decision to undertake economic development should be made in the context of the organization's planning regarding how best to respond to the needs of its clients. The organization should be attentive to the degree to which there may be fundraising opportunities to support community economic development work.

An organization that undertakes economic development has a number of responsibilities. The organization needs to hire practitioners who have expertise in pertinent substantive law and the requisite skills to achieve client objectives. If its practitioners are not experienced in the field, it needs to ensure that those who undertake the work receive appropriate training.  The practitioners should understand the operation of businesses and corporations, as well as banking and financial markets, and should be familiar with the organizations, boards, major corporations, and other decisionmakers that play an important role in local and regional development. They also need to be effective working with groups and understanding the dynamics of relationships within and among groups. 

Community economic development is an area where private attorneys can be helpful, particularly if their practice involves related issues. Private attorneys whose practice consists largely of corporate clients, for example, can make an important contribution to such representation. They can also assist the organization to gain access for clients to institutions and individuals who can provide assistance. 

The organization needs to have policies that address the unique nature of the attorney-client relationship with community economic development clients. Because engagement may be through many phases of development and often involves client groups with limited business experience, it is important for the organization to define the practitioner's role clearly at each phase of development. It is important that the practitioner and client both understand that the practitioner's role is to be a legal advisor to the effort, not its principal organizer. 

Community economic development generally involves working with groups. Many ethical challenges can arise in working with groups, particularly in the early phases of organizational development. It is important to identify clearly who the client is. To ensure that conflicts are avoided, the organization needs to ensure that its practitioners are careful to identify who has decision-making authority - an identified leader or the group through an agreed process.

It is also important for the organization to be alert to possible conflicts among its organizational clients that may not be as obvious as conflicts among individual clients. Such conflicts could range from assistance to groups seeking grants from the same revenue stream to conflicts over the ultimate goals of various community economic development projects. 

The organization should also be alert to potential conflicts with individuals who have an interest adverse to an organization created through economic development effort. To identify any such conflicts, the organization should be certain that its organizational clients are included in its conflict management system. The organization should also recognize the possibility that it may on occasion need to represent its organizational clients as an employer or a landlord of a low-income person (who is not otherwise a client of the legal aid organization). 

The organization also has an ongoing responsibility to determine with the practitioners engaged in community economic development work the level of ongoing commitment to the clients. Because development projects can be of long duration and with successful groups can lead to new projects, the long-term commitment of resources can be significant. The organization needs to be alert to the point when an organization is self-sustaining - one of the goals of community economic development work - and no longer needs free legal assistance. In like vein, the organization needs to be judicious in determining if to transition to role of general counsel, since the obligations of such a role may place demands on organization resources that conflict with the organization's client-service priorities. 

As with other delivery strategies, a legal aid organization engaged in community economic development should periodically assess the effectiveness of its efforts and if they are accomplishing their intended objectives. The assessment should address both success in creating capacity that produces intended goods and services and the often less-tangible outcome of building community infrastructure and supporting leadership development. 

Community Lawyering

Besides the systemic legal barriers targeted by community economic development, another persistent problem is the difficulty many potential clients of legal aid organizations have in accessing legal assistance. As discussed in several places in Standard 4.2, individual potential clients frequently find it hard to connect with an organization. Telephone or online intake systems can deter people whose primary language is not English, or who have mental health or cognitive challenges. Physical distance from an organization and lack of transportation can create daunting barriers. Family obligations and inflexible work schedules prevent many from accessing services. The huge volume of demand for services puts anyone facing these problems at a competitive disadvantage in just getting in the front door. And, as many recent studies have shown, many people who wrestle with the challenges of limited income have many problems that they do not identify as having a legal solution or they choose not to deal with them because they are just too busy or exhausted by more pressing needs.

One response to this problem is for the organization to try to adapt its existing service delivery models to bridge some of these gaps. Another way to respond to these barriers is for the legal aid organization to engage in community lawyering. Community lawyering is an evolving concept that can mean many things, but primarily refers to the placement of lawyers directly in client communities, often in settings where members of the community typically gather. Rather than forcing potential clients to identify their own legal issues and seek assistance from the organization, community lawyering brings legal services more directly to communities and allows for facilitated access to services. Examples of this work may include walk-in legal clinics located in easily accessible locations, placement of attorneys in a medical-legal partnership, attendance by organization staff at community meetings, or the presence of mobile legal aid offices.

An important focus of community lawyering is to reframe an organization's service delivery models to acknowledge the realities of how client community members work and live. For example, an organization’s service area may include a concentration of recently arrived refugees. Because of language barriers, the organization may make its phone intake message available in that community's language, and post language-appropriate outreach fliers in the community with its intake number. But this kind of access, while important, does not address more daunting barriers - the community may have wide discomfort with using telephones, or even deeper mistrust of bureaucratic organizations and legal systems, and only a basic knowledge of legal rights and potential remedies. Rather than trying to modify existing service delivery systems to accommodate certain underserved groups, community lawyering aims to rethink those systems to meet those communities on their own terms and find ways to bring lawyers where the community lives.

Community lawyering models generally begin with some process of getting an organization's staff outside of the legal aid office and into community settings. This change of venue can take a wide range of forms, depending on the needs of the community. It is important when devising these models to start by asking the community members themselves what will work for them, rather than the organization assuming what might be an effective or convenient strategy. Any design of service delivery for community lawyering needs to be client-centered and based on information provided by the community about their own needs and challenges. With that information, the organization can identify the specifics of what types of locations might be used, at what times, by what modes of service delivery, and ultimately what support structures might be needed to ensure effective assistance. 

One important strategy for community lawyering is for the organization to target resources to a specific underserved community. For example, an organization may set up special organizations to provide service to new refugee populations, or to groups with a racial, ethnic, or gender identity, who may have previously had difficulty accessing legal services. A targeted community legal project can bridge historical barriers to obtaining service by hiring staff that shares that group's identity, speaks their language, and understands their traditions and cultural norms. Targeted community lawyers can build trust with the community by establishing a regular presence with community members and obtaining a deeper understanding of the community's legal needs and the advocacy strategies appropriate to resolve them. Such organizations can also help to bridge gaps between these communities and the organization's other service offerings.

Another important consideration for community lawyering is for the organization to think outside the traditional models of lawyer-client interactions. Some community lawyering employs similar strategies to other out-of-office service models, such as community-based advice clinics, but placed in a more convenient setting for community access. But other modes of service delivery can reach further to bridge barriers to access. The legal aid organization may partner with other community support services and agencies to incorporate legal assistance into the spectrum of supports that the community might access. For example, a community support agency for refugee populations might include an organization's attorney as part of the support team to wrap legal services into housing and employment supports. Many organizations have joined medical-legal partnerships, where an advocate partners with community medical organizations to assess an individual's or family's legal needs within the context of a regular health assessment.

These kinds of community partnerships are essential to this type of service provision. As most legal aid advocates know, even in traditional models of legal service delivery, the lines between legal work and social work can get blurred. The settlement of a legal issue may often require coordinating non-legal support services for the client to help ensure a successful outcome of the case. A client in an "lawyer-for-the-day" eviction clinic who is looking to leave sub-standard housing may be more apt to resolve their case if a community housing specialist is involved to assist in locating new housing. Legal debt issues may be resolved more readily by getting a client access to affordable transportation, and thus access to employment, rather than litigating the debt collection case or filing bankruptcy. A lawyer in isolation will attempt to resolve a legal problem using legal tools. A lawyer in the community can help to identify legal issues, and then use a broad range of partnerships - including, but not limited to, litigation - to improve the client's position. And in doing so, the legal aid organization becomes much more closely integrated into the community, and more responsive to its needs.

Community Legal Education 

The term "community legal education" refers to educating members of the community and the public served by the organization about their rights and responsibilities under the law. Community legal education may offer information on a broad spectrum of issues and then relies on the individual to determine what aspects of the educational materials are germane to their needs. Community legal education often involves no individual interaction with the recipient of the educational materials. 

A variety of ways are available to deliver community legal education to its target audience, including: 

  • Public presentations to groups and organizations; 
  • Written brochures and pamphlets distributed through the offices of the organization or other organizations; 
  • Radio and television presentations; 
  • Columns and articles in print media and social media; 
  • Information available to the public on a website; 
  • Information made available through other technological means, such as kiosks, chats, bulletin boards, social media, and others that develop with the advent of new technologies; and 
  • Virtual town hall meetings to provide legal information in both live and recorded forms.

Community legal education is an important tool and should be integrated into an organization's service delivery scheme to complement the direct representation of clients in priority areas. The following are examples of such integration: 

  • On matters where the organization elects not to provide representation, community legal education may be part of a strategy to help members of the community take steps themselves to resolve their problems.
  • Community education may empower the community by increasing members' knowledge and understanding of their legal rights and responsibilities in chosen, substantive areas. 
  • An organization may adopt a strategy for an issue that involves both direct client representation and community legal education. For example, community legal education may advise members of the community of a result achieved through direct representation, so that its benefits reach those to whom it applies. 
  • Community legal education may advise members of the community that a specific problem not traditionally recognized as having a legal remedy is amenable to a legal solution. 
  • Community legal education may be designed to help self-represented litigants navigate the court system effectively. 
  • Community legal education may keep members of the community informed of the organization's activities and its services.

Most legal aid organizations have developed, alone or in partnership with other organizations, extensive legal information websites to provide that information and self-help tools to users in their service areas. In many cases, these sites are evolving into legal portals that not only provide information, but also referral and online intake services to organizations, fillable court forms, instructional videos, and other forms of assistance. The range of these community support tools has expanded rapidly in recent years and will continue to proliferate as new tools are developed.