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Standard 4.1 on Identifying Legal Needs and Planning to Respond

Standard 3.4 | Table of Contents | Standard 4.2


A legal aid organization should interact with the individuals it serves, as well as other groups serving similar client communities, in order to identify compelling needs and to implement plans to address its clients' basic human needs through legal representation in a most effective manner. The organization should also access and analyze data in order to help shape implementation of plans to address the legal needs of client communities.


General Considerations 

A legal aid organization should be aware of the most compelling needs of the clients it serves. That awareness enhances the organization's capacity to make sound choices regarding its operation, supports necessary planning, and facilitates the establishment of appropriate organizational priorities. A legal aid organization typically has limited resources to address the competing demands and overwhelming needs of its client-eligible population. It therefore needs to allocate its resources to provide assistance that addresses the most compelling, unmet needs of that population, and must be prompt in adjusting as emerging issues are identified and prioritized. 

To do so requires having the means to identify the most significant legal problems and to understand how they impact clients as individuals, as well as the client-eligible population as a whole. Organizations are encouraged to build internal capacity to benefit from modern data analytics to evaluate their work and the impact of it. This includes routinely monitoring use of their online tools and products, as well as social media. Organizations are encouraged to analyze program data in the context of census data and other data sources, within their evaluation work and planning. The organization should also be aware of other resources available to respond, including those available from the statewide and regional system in which it operates.

Organization Communication with the Client Population

Effective communication with the client population the legal aid organization serves is an essential ingredient of the organization being aware of the legal needs of that population. Day-to-day communication with applicants and clients through intake and other interactions can provide valuable insight into the most pressing needs of the client population. An organization should have the means to spot patterns among legal problems that are presented at intake and to detect changes that may herald the emergence of new legal issues. For example, analysis of compiled data, such as that from a case management system, may assist with this, as might social media platforms. Legal aid organizations need to include Facebook and other popular social media tools as part of their communication strategy with client communities and those who serve them.

An organization whose contacts with client-eligible persons are limited to the office setting will not be fully aware of or understand the full range of legal needs and objectives of the people it serves. Issues that are presented at intake are often a reflection of the kinds of cases the organization already accepts. Clients' perceptions of the types of issues the organization handles may limit the nature of the problems for which they seek assistance. Furthermore, many people do not recognize that the problems they face present legal issues and so may not bring them to the attention of the organization. 

To gain deeper insight into the problems of the client community and how legal representation can be used to address them, an organization should interact with client groups and with groups that serve the client community and are familiar with its needs. Ongoing communication with such groups helps the organization recognize the constantly changing circumstances and legal needs of the population it serves in order to adjust its representation efforts to better serve its constituents. Such interaction can take place when an organization represents client groups and works with them in collaborative projects. Meeting with the members, as well as the leaders and spokespersons of the groups, helps deepen the organization's insights into the communities it serves. 

Practitioners may also maintain informal contact with client groups and their leaders outside the context of legal representation. Participation on boards and advisory committees, as well as attendance at meetings and other community activities, are potentially rich sources of information and insight into the needs of the client community. Working with social service agencies, as well as community-based and faith-based organizations that serve the same or similar populations, can also give organizations valuable insight into the range of issues and the concomitant legal problems that members of the client community face. 

The organization should strive to ensure that its contacts are not limited to one segment of its clientele. Open relations with a number of client and community groups can expose the organization to a wide spectrum of problems confronting client-eligible persons and avoid dominance by a single-issue group. 

It is important for an organization to reach out to the cultural and linguistic groups that make up the client population. The organization should take steps to reach out particularly to those within the community who may have distinctive networks with limited overlap with other community networks, such as LGBTQ+ community members, youth, and speakers of non-dominant languages. It should be aware of the many sub-groups that may exist in its service area and should be attentive to the arrival of new populations made up of new immigrant groups, or other new categories of client-eligible persons.

An organization that serves both urban and rural areas should take steps to be aware of issues affecting communities throughout its service area, including the more remote areas. Some issues will be unique to persons living outside cities and others will impact very differently the rural poor or the urban poor. Rural communities also typically have fewer resources available to help respond to recurring legal problems and to alleviate their impact. 

Other pertinent information. In addition to interacting with groups of client-eligible persons, an organization should use other means to stay aware of developments in its service area that might affect client communities. News reports of economic, social, and political events may portend the development of legal problems or of new opportunities for the client population. Organizational interactions with social media may be useful in achieving this goal. Participation in bar and judicial activities may offer insight into developments in the administration of the courts and changes in local legal practice that might have an impact on client-eligible persons, particularly self-represented litigants, such as those in right-to-counsel initiatives in a particular civil legal area.Other important information may come from widely available data sets, such as the American Communities Survey of the U.S Census Bureau,the Eviction Lab at Princeton University,and others.

Formal legal needs assessments. A more formal assessment of the legal needs of the client community conducted periodically by the legal aid organization, on its own or in concert with others in the statewide or regional system, may serve to identify issues that might be missed with ongoing interaction with the same set of client and community groups. More formal assessments can also establish a baseline regarding the relative importance attached by individuals in the community to recurring legal problems. Such assessments should be designed to obtain the views of persons eligible for legal aid and of people or agencies that work with or know the situations of client-eligible persons, including social service agencies, community organizations, community leaders, and the judiciary.

The views and needs of people who are homebound, disabled or institutionalized, as well as people who prefer to speak and write a language other than English, will be lost without intentional efforts to communicate with them in effective ways. Legal needs studies should also be designed to take into account the needs of low-wage workers. Data can be gathered from the eligible population by using a variety of methods including interviews; surveys by phone, text message, website, or social media; focus groups of persons from the client community, including clients themselves so long as applicable professional conduct rules and privilege concerns are not implicated; and meetings with community groups and others.

Organizations are expected to learn and incorporate data analytics, using the materials and resources shared through Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and Legal Services Network Technology Assistance Program (LSNTAP) for the community at-large.As the capacity to obtain and use data from multiple sources to better understand client needs increases, legal aid organizations are encouraged to develop in-house expertise to benefit from such advances in this area. They are also encouraged to find local resources at universities, in research groups, or at other nonprofits, as well as national resources that might be able to help them become familiar with such approaches. 

The availability of other resources to serve clients. In addition to being aware of the legal needs facing its client communities, each organization should be aware of the resources available to respond to those needs. The organization should participate in statewide and regional systems for responding to client needs so that it can tailor its response to the needs in the context of other resources that might be available to respond. It should also support development and deployment of resources in the system to ensure the availability of a full range of services, responsive to the most pressing needs of low-income persons in its service area. It should make its choices both about the substantive focus of its legal work and the delivery mechanisms it employs in order to complement and take advantage of other resources that are available to the same population. The model of one client to one lawyer, though laudable, will be hard to achieve without significant resources, thus legal nonprofits need to learn how to move to more enterprise-driven models of providing services, with a mix of skillsets and tools that increase the ability of attorneys to increase their reach and impact. See Standard 3.3 for a more detailed analysis of an organization's obligation to participate in statewide and regional delivery systems.

Application of the Standard

Different legal aid organizations will have differing needs and capacities to communicate with potential clients through avenues other than intake. 

To the extent that an organization has a central staff engaged in the direct delivery of services and operates as the primary organization of legal aid in its service area, it should establish a variety of means for communicating with clients to meet the objectives of this standard. If a smaller organization does not have sufficient resources, it should, nonetheless, seek to be as engaged as possible with the communities it serves. In addition, it should participate in statewide and regional systems and draw upon the insights of other organizations that have a greater capacity to engage with clients and client groups outside of the office.