A legal aid organization should establish delivery mechanisms that effectively and efficiently meet its client communities' legal needs consistent with applicable rules of professional conduct within the context of its regional and statewide network.
A legal aid organization should establish an overall delivery structure and choose the delivery mechanisms that utilize limited resources most effectively. The organization's approach to delivery should balance five goals:
- To be effective in responding to the most compelling, unmet legal needs of the population it serves.
- To ensure the delivery of high-quality assistance.
- To utilize its resources efficiently.
- To facilitate access for members of its client communities to assistance appropriate to their legal needs.
- To be fully remote-enabled, as the assumption should no longer be that the client will come to the office for legal services, or that the advocate will always work from the office.
Decisions about each organization's delivery structure should be made in the context of the local, regional, and statewide systems of which the organization is a part. The organization should work with other organizations to establish a unified delivery structure in which participating organizations complement and support each other's efforts to respond fully to the legal needs of
The organization also needs to determine how technology will be used as part of its efforts to meet the needs of clients consistent with practitioners' ethical duties. Technology is a critical tool to ensure effective work on behalf of clients and efficient administration of the organization. Information technology is also an important component of the methods employed to provide assistance directly to members of client communities, whether by remote methods when in-person meetings are impossible,This is in part due to the advent of disaster-driven responses, causing legal aid organizations to move toward regular engagement in remote legal services. Having enough resources, training, and bandwidth to be able to fully go online whenever the next disaster happens is no longer a theoretical question. All organizations need to be fully capable of providing online remote services on short notice, so that clients can continue to communicate and work with staff despite closures of offices, courts, and agencies.
There are several delivery mechanisms that an organization can utilize to serve its constituents. Delivery techniques evolve with changes in the practice of law, with the adoption of new advocacy strategies, with the advent of new technologies, and with successful experiments in reaching out to and serving clients. Each organization should stay abreast of such changes and should take advantage of new delivery approaches that may increase its capacity to serve its clients effectively and efficiently.
Some popular delivery methods include:
- High-volume legal advice offered by telephone or through secure audio and visual remote legal services platforms;
- Use of live chat, email, and SMS texting with clients when that is a safe, available, and appropriate form of
- Mobile-first designed legal information websites;
- Use of Natural Language Processing tools in triaging portals to help direct members of the public to the best-matched resource available to them, depending on their legal problem and location;
- Online intake and email/text communication to enable asynchronous remote and
- Use of document assembly tools to enable broader use of limited-scope representation and enable pro bono attorneys to provide assistance in areas of the law that are not their expertise.
In order to take advantage of innovative delivery methods, legal aid organizations should consider:
- If the organization can help clients overcome the digital divide by providing internet access to clients via hotspots and other equipment to enable them to participate in remote and
- Adopting electronic "e-sign" signature options for lawyers and clients, utilizing document coproduction through secure tools and platforms that enable secure file-sharing.
Enterprise service delivery through remote tools allows a switch from having one lawyer to one client to a model in which there is one lawyer for 100 clients with paraprofessional and other supports.
These goals are important for an organization to keep in mind when deciding how to fold new delivery techniques into its overall delivery approach: 1) effective response to legal needs, 2) high-quality service, 3) efficiency, and 4) access to services. On the one hand, many of the approaches economically provide access to assistance for large numbers of client-eligible persons. On the other hand, some legal problems cannot be effectively resolved without a costlier form of representation. Triage can help separate clients and legal problems into the appropriate buckets of delivery needed.
All approaches need to be measured against the standard of whether they effectively respond to compelling, unmet legal needs of clients. Efficiency should be measured in terms of cost-effective use of resources to accomplish a meaningful result as defined by the client, not the lawyer. Organizations, therefore, should not choose an approach based only on the number of persons able to be served. However, this can be a temptation if an organization feels pressure - real or imagined - to show funders and others results in terms of quantity of cases closed.
Designing its delivery structure also entails the organization making choices about what types of representation are appropriate to respond to the needs of the client population it serves, including whether it will engage in legislative and administrative advocacy or community economic development. The organization also needs to determine the degree to which offering community legal education and legal information will be part of its approach to serving the communities in its service area.
Design of the structure and selection of the mechanisms for the delivery of legal aid involves many decisions about who will perform legal work - staff attorneys, outside attorneys, and/or non-attorney‑practitioners - and how they will be deployed in the organization's service area. Issues associated with deployment and utilization of personnel are discussed in the commentaries to a number of these Standards.
Comprehensive Planning to Meet Identified Legal Needs
The organization's knowledge of the most pressing legal problems facing its client population is crucial to planning how best to meet those needs. Effective planning serves several important purposes. First, it enhances the likelihood that an organization will utilize its resources in ways that are most appropriate to serving its clients. Second, planning that sets clear objectives for an organization’s efforts facilitates its evaluation of its efforts on behalf of clients Third, planning offers a solid basis for internal policies that set case-acceptance standards, determine internal needs such as training, and formally set priorities.
The approach to planning may vary among legal aid organizations, but each organization should be rationally organized and effectively administered to achieve its objectives. To that end, deliberate decisions need to be made about what the organization aspires to accomplish for its client population and how it proposes to do so.
There are a variety of ways that an organization may go about planning how best to serve its client population and no one way is always best. At times, a formal process is appropriate, and, at others, planning may happen implicitly in the course of ongoing management decisions about the organization's operation.
Formal planning processes may involve face-to-face discussion among potential clients, the governing body, staff, and outside attorneys engaged in delivering services. Key interests of the community should be represented, if possible, with regard to culture, language, race, gender, age, disability, national origin, religion and geographic location. Particular efforts should be made to obtain representation of the interests of individuals who are physically unable to participate in a planning process, such as people residing in institutions, the homebound, children, and low-wage workers. It is useful to obtain input from other organizations that serve similar client communities, such as public defender offices, employment services, churches, and other faith-based organizations and social service agencies.
Whatever its form, planning should help establish or affirm these key aspects of the organization's operation:
- The organization should have a clear sense of its focus and what it hopes to accomplish overall for its clients. It should take steps to ensure that all staff have a clear, shared sense of the mission and vision of the organization and how it will accomplish that mission.
- The organization should determine the substantive areas in which it will represent its clients. This decision may include broad determinations of the areas in which it will assist clients and may set specific objectives for its legal work in each area. Setting long-term goals and objectives for the organization's substantive legal work can be a valuable tool for maximizing the effectiveness of that work.
- The organization should determine broad strategic approaches, including the degree to which it will engage in efforts to accomplish systemic change.
- The organization needs to make an intentional choice regarding its overall delivery approach, including what types of assistance and what delivery mechanisms will best serve the needs of its low-income population.
- The organization should plan in the context of its role in the regional or statewide delivery system of which it is a part. To the degree possible, its role and the focus of its legal work should be selected to foster the capacity of the overall delivery system to provide a full range of services to the low-income community.
Effective planning has an evaluation element built into it. It is important that an organization's efforts to identify the legal needs of the community it serves and to engage in planning to meet those needs be regularly assessed to determine if its efforts have been successful and if its objectives have been met.
Delivery in Rural Areas
Rural areas present special challenges to be addressed in establishing a delivery structure and allocating resources. It is well documented that poverty is growing in suburban and rural areas at high rates. Substantial distances and transportation costs to and from a central office may mean it is physically accessible only to those who live within a short radius of it, yet it can be costly and relatively inefficient to have widely dispersed small offices. A legal aid organization is not likely to have enough resources to staff branch offices adequately in each community within its service area, although in some communities, it may be able to establish minimally staffed satellite offices supported from a larger office.
Organizations serving sparsely populated rural areas should establish contact with client and community groups, bar associations, social service agencies, employment services, and others familiar with the legal needs of the population throughout its service area in order to stay informed about serious issues affecting clients and to enable them to respond with effective legal services where appropriate.
Organizations should consider a variety of means to provide services in rural areas and should explore new opportunities for use of technology and other developments that may facilitate access for rural clients. A number of techniques, noted below, are available and more are likely to evolve with advances in information technology:
- Centralized intake and the provision of legal advice and limited legal assistance remotely can increase the organization's capacity to reach otherwise isolated clients. Advances in technology can help overcome some of the limitations of serving clients remotely by telephone and online, particularly with regard to the secure creation, review, and sharing of transfer of documents important to a case and opportunities to appear in court remotely via phone or video.
- Private attorneys in local communities who are willing to represent eligible clients for no or limited compensation can substantially improve an organization's capacity to make services available where clients live. The organization should address how matters will be handled when there are conflicts of interest or substantive issues with which the local attorneys are unfamiliar.
- Use of circuit‑riding and mobile vans can provide periodic, temporary presence in local communities. Appropriate use of technology may ameliorate the potential loss of efficiency resulting from practitioners' travel time and their lack of ready access to items such as client files and legal research materials. Remote work preparedness can also alleviate these burdens.
- Organizations could consider partnering with others engaged in similar efforts, particularly courts and other non-profits - if there are no conflicts in the mission or diminution in the advocacy role of the organization, and no potential issues with practitioners' ethical duties (client confidentiality, conflicts of interest, etc. ) or other funder restrictions.
- Local paraprofessionals working in a satellite office can provide intake and refer cases to a fully staffed office for representation, when necessary. They can also provide advice, under the remote supervision of a lawyer or directly to the client without such supervision if authorized by law or rule.
- Community legal education offered through websites, apps, and other means that are designed to be mobile-first may be used to provide clients with information about their rights and responsibilities and provide them with other legal information, as well as self-help legal form preparation tools to help them to avoid incurring problems or to respond without direct representation.
Some isolated rural clients can be served through remote service platforms that include secure video conferencing, document sharing, scheduling, and online communication. If not directly available to the client, computers and other necessary equipment can be located at local entities, such as social service agencies, churches, and libraries. Courts may also conduct online hearings and provide online self-help. As technology and rural internet access improves, such approaches are likely to increase in effectiveness. The organization needs to be aware of digital equity in its service area and make sure that courts and other agencies are not leaving the client community behind, ensuring that clients who cannot appear remotely are still given an opportunity to do so in person.
The Number, Size, and Location of Offices
Decisions about the number, size, and location of an organization's offices are closely related to decisions about the types of practitioners and the extent of specialization to be made available. Such decisions will be influenced by considerations of cost-effectiveness, the availability of private attorneys throughout the service area, staff recruitment issues, and the need for staff development and quality assurance. Emerging technologies and the ability to work remotely will affect the need for office space, as will the ability of clients to access services without the need for those clients to necessarily visit a physical office. Care should be taken, however, to carefully examine the client community's access to technology and ability to use technology to access services.
In some cases, clients may be served most efficiently and effectively by large offices that serve large areas. Such offices may facilitate the supervision and training of staff and the implementation and operation of law practice systems. The cost of maintaining small offices may be relatively high because of disproportionately higher overhead and the loss of economies of scale.
These considerations need to be balanced against the important fact that having a physical presence in the communities served can make a significant difference in access for clients and the capacity of the organization to engage with the client communities that it serves. Experience indicates that the number of clients that use the services of a legal aid organization is higher in communities in which it has an office.
Thus, a challenge created by centralization is the organization's isolation from distant segments of its service area. For rural legal aid organizations serving extremely large geographic expanses, consolidation may be infeasible. The resources available, however, may only support offices with a small staff. Such offices often face problems recruiting advocates because of their remoteness from large population centers. Loss of even one staff member, particularly a lawyer, can disrupt services significantly while the person is being replaced.
There are no easy answers regarding how an organization should structure itself in terms of the size, number, and location of offices, and the decisions will vary greatly depending on the size of the organization and the service area, and the other resources available to clients within that area. Whatever choices are made, it is important that the organization seek to mitigate the disadvantages that the option presents, doing so in part through the best use of technological advancements.
If an organization disperses staff in small offices, it should adopt a variety of strategies that will help to overcome the isolation of the staff. Failure to do so may lead to staff frustration, stifle the incentive for professional growth, and contribute to turnover. Many tools and training videos explore how to provide adequate remote supervision in instances like these.
Conversely, an organization with consolidated offices should take positive steps to reach out to isolated parts of its service area and to ensure wide distribution of information about legal aid. Contact with client groups, with other organizations concerned with the interests of the poor, and with persons familiar with the legal problems in those areas can help the organization identify and respond to legal needs in areas without an office. Remote work preparedness will enable staff to travel to other parts of the service area to engage in intake, advice, and other services like limited-scope representation clinics.
Effective utilization of private attorneys can greatly facilitate an organization's efforts to provide services directly to clients in the communities and neighborhoods where they live. In many large rural areas, the only practical way to provide service in some isolated communities may be through the volunteer or compensated efforts of private attorneys. There may be practical limitations to this, however, as some rural areas and some urban neighborhoods have few or no practicing private attorneys located in or near them.
One choice that an organization faces in organizing its delivery structure is the degree to which it will have its staff specialize in specific substantive areas of the law or on discrete representation tasks, such as appellate work, legislative representation, or community education. There are gradations from absolute specialization in which practitioners focus on a relatively narrow issue to generalists who address whatever issue they encounter. Note that the use of the term "specialization" here refers in general to the practice focus of the individual legal aid attorney and not to the formal process of certification of an attorney as a specialist in a particular area of law, such as those programs of certification accredited by the ABA Standing Committee on Specialization.
The choice between specialization and a generalist practice is not absolute and there are a number of models that may be appropriate for an organization. Practitioners, for instance, may be expected to develop special expertise in one or two substantive areas, while occasionally taking on a matter outside their field of concentration in alignment with their competence obligations. Some experienced practitioners may function as generalists, supervising the work of less experienced staff who concentrate on one or two areas of focus in order to develop pertinent expertise quickly.
The degree to which the organization relies on specialists or generalists should be guided by its priorities, how its resources are deployed, and the nature of its service area. Narrow specialization, for instance, presupposes a staff of sufficient size for it to be practical. A small funding base or geographic factors, such as a very large rural service area, all of which dictate small offices, will likely not permit narrow specialization in those offices.
There are advantages and disadvantages to whatever structure is chosen. Specialization allows inexperienced practitioners to master an area of law relatively quickly. Experienced specialists may be more able to fashion far‑reaching and creative responses to specific legal issues in substantive areas with which they are deeply familiar.
Organizing into specialty units can facilitate supervision and mentoring of new practitioners. Specialized practitioners can usually handle cases more efficiently and intake and case handling procedures in a specialty unit can be streamlined to expedite the handling of common aspects of repetitive matters. A specialty unit may develop standard forms and procedures for cases in which routine and narrow issues regularly appear. Standard case handling techniques should be reevaluated periodically to ensure that standardized treatment is still justified by circumstances and that the creativity of practitioners is not stifled in out‑of‑the ordinary cases.
Specialization may inhibit identification of problems that fall outside the specialty areas of an office. It may also inhibit change by the organization to respond to new areas of the law that emerge and call for substantive knowledge and strategic approaches that are unfamiliar to the specialists. Practitioners who narrowly specialize and do not get effective oversight and supervision may become isolated in their practice specialty, treating cases in a routine fashion.
Generalist practitioners develop a wider range of experience and may be better able to identify ancillary issues in a client's overall circumstances. They are more likely to recognize the interconnection among different substantive areas. Offices that operate with generalists can more easily adapt to personnel changes, particularly in smaller offices where loss of a specialist can severely disrupt office operations.
In a non-specialized practice, however, inexperienced practitioners may be less efficient and effective because they are required to research a broader range of unrelated and unfamiliar issues. They may miss subtle aspects of important legal issues and may be less able to address an unusual legal problem with dispatch. That said, the use of knowledge databases and document assembly tools can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of all advocates.
Whatever structure an organization adopts, it should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each and should take appropriate steps to address any weaknesses. An organization should periodically review how it deploys its staff and adjust how it relies on specialists and generalists to reflect changing client needs and staff capabilities.