A legal aid organization should strive to achieve its clients' objectives. A legal aid organization should also focus on securing systemic changes that respond to its client communities' most compelling legal needs. Legal aid voices should be included in all conversations, including those led by courts, legislators, administrative agencies, and academics, where legal rights and access to justice will be impacted.
The effectiveness of an organization can be measured by the tangible, lasting results of its efforts on behalf of its clients and the client communities it serves. Each organization should strive to accomplish meaningful results in all of the legal assistance activities it undertakes. Lasting results can be achieved in several ways: By favorably resolving individual legal problems; by teaching clients how to address the legal problems that they face; by improving laws and practices that affect the client population; and by assisting members of the client community to become economically self-sufficient.
The problems of individual clients often involve the most basic issues of survival. Problems that merely inconvenience persons of economic means can have enormous long-term consequences for low-income persons and others and can disrupt every aspect of their lives. An unlawful delay or termination of Social Security benefits may leave one with no money for food, medicine, shelter, or utilities. Unlawful repossession of a car may mean one cannot get to work or to necessary medical care. The legal aid organization should be able to respond quickly with high-quality assistance that favorably resolves these individual problems in a substantial percentage of cases. Additionally, organizations should strive for sustained positive change in the communities they serve.
An organization should establish a clear focus for its legal work and what it seeks to accomplish for and with its clients. Having a strategic focus starts with making intentional choices about what legal work and organization will undertake, how it will deploy its resources,The organization should know what it hopes to accomplish with its legal work so that it can measure if it is successfully achieving desired results for clients.
There are a number of ways in which an organization may maintain a strategic focus that enhances the results achieved for clients. It calls for deliberative, empirical-based decision-making and intentionality at all levels of the organization regarding what its legal work is intended to accomplish. At an organizational level, the entity may set broad goals for its legal work, such as protecting access to shelter, or fostering the stability and safety of the family. Many organizations set broad priorities that provide the basis for making more specific choices about the acceptance of legal work and the focus in broad substantive areas affecting its clients.
The focus of legal work undertaken by an organization is sharpened if the organization deliberately identifies the broadly stated results it seeks to achieve in major substantive areas, or through its projects or specialty units. Thus, a domestic violence unit might identify an objective in its work to be to help its clients find and retain a safe environment in which to live. Identifying a longer-term goal than simply obtaining a protective order focuses the unit on more long-term results and provides a basis for measuring the success of the work in terms of those results.
In each individual case, the client sets the objective and the practitioner representing the client has aIn addition, some organizations establish benchmarks regarding what the organization deems to be the most desirable, realistic outcome in cases of a certain type. The benchmarks might vary among offices based on what is realistic, given local circumstances. Experience suggests that setting benchmarks for results in recurring cases tends over time to improve the results achieved.
All types of legal assistance should accomplish meaningful results for clients of the organization. A clear strategic focus on the intended results forms the basis for a periodic evaluation of the success of the efforts, and provides the basis for making appropriate adjustments, as necessary. Strategies that employ various forms of limited assistance, such as advice lines, community legal education, and assistance to pro se litigants should also be examined to determine the degree to which those who are assisted learn how to help themselves and accomplish meaningful results with the assistance offered.
Legal aid organizations should participate in conferences and conversations, both at the local and national level, related to the future of civil legal aid, closing the justice gap, and reform of the legal system and practice. Participation in these local and national conversations by new entrants into the access-to-justice field is key to learning and contributing to the designs being promoted at higher levels and at think tanks.
"Access to justice" is no longer just the concern of legal non-profits. As the justice gap becomes better known, and more research is published on this topic, there is now a cohort of academics, grant-makers, policy groups at the court level, and civil rights advocates now coming forward to offer proposals on how to close the justice gap and improve access to justice. Legal aid organizations need to have a seat at the table and insert themselves into those conversations that will impact those they serve. This can be accomplished in many ways, whether by working collaboratively on special projects with organizations whenever possible, building-up long-term relationships with these entities based on mutual trust and respect, through administrative agency advocacy to convince decision-makers of the value of a legal aid organization's voice at the table, through advocacy by another agency or body on the legal aid organization's behalf, and as part of a settlement agreement reached through litigation, or the other systemic advocacy strategies listed below.
In the course of serving its clients, an organization is likely to identify laws, policies, and practices that have a detrimental effect on its clients and that deter the organization from accomplishing its desired results. It will also encounter the efforts of others to change policies and laws in ways that harm the interests of the client community. An organization should engage, when appropriate, in advocacy that addresses such systemic problems. Advocacy to accomplish systemic change is called for when an issue is likely to recur, affects large numbers of clients, and is unlikely to be resolved favorably for individual clients on a one-on-one basis. Advocacy is appropriate to defend the status quo when proposed changes will erode the rights of clients or harm the interest of client communities. Use of statewide triage and online intake and sharing data across organizations within a state may help identify and track patterns of legal issues in need of systemic advocacy.
In addition to traditional responses to legal problems and solutions, organizations should consider how technology access and issues can impact community legal needs and how systemic advocacy may address these problems. Examples include working to make e-filing more accessible to litigants, working on court process improvement, advocacy to increase the ability to appear in court remotely where appropriate, providing the necessary internet bandwidth to access critical online services and alternate options for those without access to online services, use of online dispute resolution, elimination of "wet signature" and notary requirements that make it more difficult to access the courts, bans on bringing cell phones into courthouses, and others.
Systemic advocacy involves many potential strategies, some of which are relatively low-cost and others which may be costly and long-term.
Non-representational strategies. There are a number of ways outside of direct legal assistance to clients in which an organization may achieve systemic results for the community it serves. It might, for instance, participate in bar and judicial committees to improve the accessibility of the courts. Participating in Access to Justice Commissions and getting involved in conversations around self-help delivery funding, options, and technology are also core strategies for legal aid organizations.
Systemic impact in individual cases. At times, representation in any individual case may have a result which has an impact beyond the interests of the parties involved, including in matters that are appealed. Systemic advocacy is generally based on a deliberate strategy, however, that targets an offendingAn organization may, therefore, deliberately focus representation in many individual cases on a particular policy or practice, with an eye toward bringing attention to a particular issue and compelling a change over time. Using data and empirical data analysis to identify emerging trends and needs to drive systemic advocacy strategies is encouraged.
Informal intervention. It is not uncommon for a practice that is harmful to clients to result from a failure of an agency to apply the law as it is intended or from it establishing procedures that limit access to services offered by the agency. A legal aid organization that is attentive to patterns of decision-making by administrative agencies, courts, school systems, and government offices may be able to identify misapplications of the law or procedures that limit access and bring about a change in the practice by intervening informally with higher-placed officials in the agency. In addition, race equity issues can and should be identified and monitored in areas where civil and criminal areas interface, like civil consequences of criminal convictions, over-policing of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) communities, in traffic courts or in instances involving drivers' license rules, as well as in practices that criminalize, and/or exclude veterans, the homeless, and disabled community groups.
Working with coalitions. An organization might work with a coalition of organizations to address policy issues that affect client populations. Not all systemic advocacy is adversarial. Organizations working with community economic development, for instance, often find that forming alliances with other interests is the most successful way to bring about fundamental changes that positively affect the client community.
Media advocacy. To help create a climate that is favorable to change, some systemic advocacy involves a media strategy that seeks to inform the general public or the client community of harmful or unfair policies and practices.
Affirmative litigation. There are many laws, policies, and practices that, if unchallenged, rule out positive resolution of clients' legal problems. Sometimes they involve laws that, on their face, are detrimental to the interests of low-income persons. Other times, a law or policy, even one designed to protect the interests of a community, may not be applied uniformly or consistently in accordance with its terms. Sometimes laws and policies that are favorable to clients' interests are challenged in litigation and need to be defended. To challenge an unfavorable law or to enforce or defend a favorable one on behalf of clients may require complex litigation, sometimes involving complex statutory or constitutional questions.
Legislative and administrative advocacy. Some systemic change can only be accomplished by seeking a legislative change or a change in agency policies, rules, regulations, and practices of general application. In addition, many proposed changes in statutes and administrative rules will, if adopted, significantly harm the interests of client communities, and thus call for advocacy to
Some legal aid organizations concentrate their efforts on broad challenges to legal problems confronting many clients. Such efforts can be the most cost-efficient way to utilize the limited resources available to meet the legal needs of clients. Repetitive representation of individuals to obtain a limited remedy that does not ultimately resolve a recurring legal problem can be costly and time-consuming. Representation that addresses the basic cause of such legal problems may, on the other hand, ultimately expend fewer resources with more lasting benefits for large numbers of client-eligible persons.
Nevertheless, some systemic representation requires a substantial commitment of resources. A decision to undertake costly systemic advocacy should be made deliberately by the organization and the client, taking into consideration the potential for success; the resources necessary to proceed, balanced against the potential benefit or risk; and the organization's priorities.
All organizations should be alert to areas in which they can have a positive impact on policies and practices that have a detrimental impact on the client communities they serve. Not all organizations are organized, however, to undertake complex - and potentially costly - representation that involves broad constitutional challenges, or to engage in administrative and legislative advocacy. Even for those that are able to, resource limitations will preclude undertaking every major case which is presented.
An organization that does not engage in costlier forms of systemic advocacy should, nonetheless, ensure that its practitioners undertake adequate research and investigation to advise and counsel their clients regarding the options open to them under the law, and to refer them to other sources of representation, if necessary. The organization should participate in regional and statewide systems to help ensure that all types of representation are available and to be aware of the appropriate