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December 15, 2014 Dialogue

Q&A with Julia Wilson, Executive Director, OneJustice

By Steve Grumm, Director, ABA Resource Center for ATJ Initiatives


As Executive Director, Julia R. Wilson is responsible for leading OneJustice's statewide network of 100+ nonprofit legal organizations, law firms, law schools and businesses that together provide life–changing legal assistance to over 270,000 low–income Californians each year. In addition to her executive responsibilities at OneJustice, Julia enjoys traveling around California providing training and consulting support to the executives and boards of the legal nonprofit organizations in OneJustice's network. Her programmatic areas of expertise include designing innovative pro bono delivery systems and building effective and engaging board governance, including training board members how to be joyful "sparkplug" friend– and fund–raisers for their organizations. In 2012, she was named by the Daily Journal as one of California's Top 100 Attorneys in recognition of her work at OneJustice.

OneJustice's mission involves supporting both the managerial/administrative health of California's civil legal aid providers, and also helping the providers to message the importance of their work as a means of building strong support in stakeholder communities. I was delighted to ask OneJustice's Julia Wilson about some of their programmatic offerings. Here's what we covered:

Steve: OneJustice runs an "Executive Fellows" program which aims at helping legal aid executive directors and emerging leaders continue to develop leadership skills. It appears that this program was created, partially, in response to the Great Recession's impact on the legal aid community. Please tell us more about the program's origins.

Julia: The Executive Fellowship grew out of an intersection between 1) the beginning of a funding shift for legal services and 2) the identification of poor management as an issue in the recruitment/retention of legal services attorneys. Right around the time that the Great Recession began to significantly reduce the government and foundation funding for legal services nonprofits, OneJustice had been thinking about how to respond to a major finding in a study of retention of California legal services attorneys that inadequate supervision was a factor – in addition to compensation — leading newer attorneys to depart from legal services. And at the same time, some of the California foundations that fund legal services programs as part of their commitment to the larger social services safety net came to OneJustice and basically told us that the legal services sector had some learning to do in a variety of areas of nonprofit management and how to communicate about the power of the work we do. This was tough news in a very tough time period!

So we started talking to executive directors at the nonprofits we support, and we realized three things. First, law school doesn't prepare anyone to manage a nonprofit corporation; most of the skills just don't translate. Second, many of the leaders of legal services nonprofits are executives by accident. They were such stellar attorneys that they are eventually promoted out of advocacy positions and into management, often without professional development to support that transition. And third, we are facing a wave of future retirement of our experienced executives, many of whom have been in leadership positions for 15 to 30 years.

We realized that our sector had to get serious about ensuring that our leaders – both current and future executives and senior managers – have access to high quality, cutting edge thinking and learning on nonprofit management and the opportunity develop new skills in a supportive, peer cohort environment. And so the Executive Fellowship, a 10–month intensive program on nonprofit management, was born – thanks to very generous seed funding from the Marcled Foundation.

Steve: Let's steer from today's leaders to tomorrow's. OneJustice was founded by law students, and still does much to engage students in pro bono and public interest work today. Some public–interest law offices struggle with how to maximize their use of law students to both a) get work product and b) provide a learning experience. Please offer three strategies you've learned for maximizing the impact of law–student contributions while also maximizing their experience.

Julia: Ah yes, we frequently hear from legal services nonprofits about the joys and frustrations of working with law students. We believe that law students are an extremely important, and sometimes undervalued, resource for the legal services community to expand services for clients. However, we also believe that nonprofits can underestimate the planning, supervision, and ongoing management required to effectively leverage law student time and energy.

In terms of advice for maximizing law student contributions, we would offer this. First, nonprofits should spend a bit of time planning and articulating the goals and objectives for involving law students in the work. There are many situations in which law student involvement can be highly leveraged, such as helping to staff clinics to do intake and screening, advice and counsel, or even sometimes brief services (under the supervision of an attorney, of course). Law students can also assist individual attorneys with their caseloads over longer periods of time through research and other assistance. These opportunities all work best when the nonprofits spend just a bit of time upfront articulating exactly why they are involving law students, the role that law students will fill, and what success will look like (i.e., using students will increase the total number of clients served, or will allow more time to be spent with each client at the clinic, or will increase the number of clinics per month, etc.).

Second, we should ensure basic human resources practices, even for law student volunteers. As evidenced by the feedback in a series of retention and recruitment studies in various states, our sector struggles a bit with the effective management of our human capital. Sometimes our management of volunteer resources is even less structured. The need to manage talent effectively applies equally to law students; often you get out of the person what you are willing to invest. We recommend that nonprofits do things like draft a formal job description for the law student role — whether short–term at a clinic or longer–term like an externship. Share it with the student(s) and check for understanding. Invest in a bit of professional development, including an on–boarding or orientation program. This can be as short at 30 minutes before a one–time clinic, or a full professional development plan for semester–long interns. Employ best practices in delegation, including stating criteria for satisfaction, checking for understanding, and setting up a clear process for check–ins and feedback. As our sector improves our management of paid employees, we should transfer those same skills into managing all volunteers — including law students.

And our third piece of advice is that nonprofits should think about how they can partner with other organizations to share the time needed to implement our first two recommendations. One of the benefits OneJustice offers to the nonprofits we support is that they can outsource to us much of the preparatory work in engaging law students. We can help identify the ideal law student role in clinics or other service settings, including strategizing about which roles can maximize the strengths law students bring to the work. We can conduct trainings and orientations for large groups of students at once, enabling them to hit the ground running and reducing the training required by individual legal services providers. They could consider collaborating to take on different aspects of the planning, preparation, training, and management of law student volunteers — sharing the burdens in order to jointly maximize the benefits.

Steve: OneJustice used to be the Public Interest Clearinghouse before going through a ground–up rebranding process. OneJustice emerged not just with a new moniker but with new energy around the importance of how an organization, such as a nonprofit law office, communicates its mission. Please tell me why this was important to do, and offer three specific benefits it's yielded.

Julia: In 2007, the OneJustice Board and staff received some difficult feedback. At the onset of a new strategic planning process, our consultants reported that their stakeholder surveys revealed some serious problems. Many of our stakeholders, and even our staff, were fundamentally confused about what we did, why we existed, and why our work mattered.

Inside the organization, we knew that we had an important mission: to dramatically expand the legal services available to all low–income Californians by supporting and engaging the entire legal profession in California. And yet, we clearly were not bringing folks along with us in that work. So the Board and staff had to dig deep, refocus on our mission and vision for the future, and completely reorganize our programmatic priorities and structure in direct response to input from the nonprofits, firms, schools, and others we serve. Along the way, it became evident that the name Public Interest Clearinghouse or "PIC," although descriptive in the days when we were indeed a physical library of resources for law students interested in public interest and public sector work, was adding to the confusion about the organization. So the decision to rename and rebrand the organization as OneJustice – representing our belief in one justice system that serves everyone, equally – grew out of an organizational soul–searching and re–commitment to our very purpose. Now our name is a distillation of our mission and a call to action for what we hope to achieve.

At the same time, we realized that to truly achieve our vision for future, we must be able to communicate passionately, strategically, and effectively about that vision and how we can work together to get there. As nonprofits we have limited access to people's attention and such a narrow bandwidth for our message. We must be exacting, purposeful, and extremely targeted in how we communicate. If we want to fundamentally change the world (and we think that we do want exactly that), then we cannot afford to be anything except profoundly strategic.

At OneJustice, we think that our more disciplined and informed approach to communication has resulted in three important benefits: 1) increased funding for our organization, which allows us to provide even more training, resources, and supports for the California legal services community; 2) an improved ability for us to engage the private sector in partnering with the nonprofits we support in order to increase the legal services available through pro bono; and 3) an emerging ability to interest people outside the legal profession in participating in and financially supporting the work of legal services programs.

Disclaimer: The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association or the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.