Completing a comprehensive legal needs assessment:
- Helps identify your organization's priorities
- Helps determine the allocation of scarce resources and staffing
- Incorporates information from a variety of stakeholders, including applicants and clients
- Engages with the community to get feedback on how efficient, visible, and accessible the organization is
- Generates data and information that the organization can use in its media effort to increase the visibility of legal aid, develop support for legal aid work, and encourage resource development
A comprehensive legal needs assessment is an opportunity for client outreach, staff engagement, and community investment.
As part of the panel discussion at the April 2013 LSC Board meeting, Hannah Lieberman, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services Program, explained the purpose and benefits of a legal needs assessment. Lieberman described the value of using an inclusive methodology and how to get input from the community. Listen to the presentation on Soundcloud.
Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, provided an analysis of the importance of understanding the demographics of poverty.
When conducting a legal needs assessment, it is important to take a collaborative approach that involves the board of directors, staff, stakeholders, community members, clients, and service providers. By engaging all of these partners, your organization can increase its visibility and identify barriers that low-income people face in accessing services.
An inclusive needs assessment process can strengthen relationships with community partners and expand pro bono opportunities, including those who are not attorneys. Local universities may be able to assist in coordinating focus groups, gathering data, and compiling interviews and results.
A Resource Model: How Arkansas Legal Aid Partnered with a University
Legal Aid of Arkansas and Center for Arkansas Legal Services, with support from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, conducted a statewide legal needs assessment to determine the civil legal needs of low-income Arkansans who are potentially eligible for legal aid services.
Before gathering new data, the authors conducted an extensive literature review to determine an appropriate model study and methodology, so that the study could respond to recent shifts in legal aid while still meeting LSC requirements.
To gather data from the low-income population, the study used three different approaches:
- Purchasing a mailing list of 7,500 randomly selected low-income Arkansans from U.S. Data Corporation in order to reach income-eligible potential clients
- Randomly asking clients who called the hotlines to complete questionnaires, which were administered by the helpline staff
- Conducting focus groups within each of the state's four congressional districts to obtain qualitative feedback
Needs Assessment: Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati Engages Staff in an Outreach—or Listening Tour—Model to Solicit Community Feedback
Founded in 1908 to secure justice and protect the rights of the needy, the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati (LASGC) has a long history of engaging with the communities in Cincinnati and its outlying counties. Since the 1970s, the program has conducted regular civil legal assessments as a part of its strategic planning.
As part of its comprehensive, year-long needs assessment, which includes community meetings, surveys, data collection and review, and staff and board retreats, LASGC implemented an outreach—or listening tour—model to solicit community feedback.
Under the model, staff met with community members and members from nonprofits or organizations whose industry area—health care, education, or government, for example—would be conducive to forming a meaningful partnership. During the last needs assessment, LASGC staff interviewed more than 100 of these individuals in the greater Cincinnati community.
While the organization previously hired consultants to handle the interviews, they currently find value in facilitating these discussions and gathering data. This change—switching staff for consultants—has paid off tremendously.
First, by having an active, front-seat role in the listening tour model, LASGC staff have been able to develop their skills and are also better aligned with the organization’s mission and goals. For someone who works in legal services, it’s important to know how to develop a plan, articulate a goal, and establish a timeline—all components of project management. LASGC staff, regardless of whether they are a lawyer or a paralegal, now have this knowledge, and the organization is looking into a similar skills training for the technology and development staff.
Second, by altering the information-gathering method of the model from small group breakouts, where the conversation could easily be dominated by one or several people, to individual meetings, LASGC has received more high-quality input while also being more respectful of the interviewee’s time.
Third, the emphasis on skills development, combined with the overall positive results of the model, including the formation of strong joint programs and partnerships, have led to greater buy-in and collaboration between staff. Perhaps more than anything, a comprehensive and inclusive needs assessment process requires staff to be well-trained and on board—and that’s exactly the case at LASGC.
Sample Needs Assessments
Center for Arkansas Legal Services 2016 Needs Assessment
In the summer of 2016, as part of its needs assessment process, staff of the Center for Arkansas Legal Services (CALS) interviewed representatives of organizations that work with or on behalf of the low-income or marginalized populations in its service area to gain a better understanding of community needs.
Fifteen CALS advocates conducted in-person interviews with people from 64 organizations in different sectors. Interviews covered the organizations’ services or role, the most pressing needs of the low-income and marginalized communities and ways to address them, outreach and service suggestions, and possible collaborations.
Those organizations have expertise with specific groups or communities, including:
- Children and youth
- Formerly incarcerated persons
- Homeless individuals and families
- Immigrants and refugees
- LGBTQ individuals
- Low-income individuals in need of health care
- Low-income individuals with housing problems
- Low-income individuals facing family crises
- Low-income persons need financial assistance
- Low-wage and unemployed workers
- Persons with disabilities
- Persons with substance abuse problems
The organizations also have expertise in specific substantive areas, including:
- Community redevelopment
In contrast with traditional legal needs assessments that gather information from the client-eligible population, CALS’ method enabled them to get more comprehensive information from reliable and knowledgeable third parties. This led them to identify the six most pressing needs—highlighted in CALS’ 2016 Community Needs Assessment Report, written by Carmody and Associates (who also designed the assessment)—which are:
- Hunger and food insecurity
Along with the insights from the outside organizations, the report also contains a wealth of pertinent statistical data. For example, data are provided that show a snapshot of poverty in Arkansas; the state’s minimum wage and job market outlook, as well as barriers to employment; and a lack of appropriate education services.
The needs assessment also gave way to other results and findings, providing a full window into the issues and needs of CALS’ community. According to the report:
"The Community Needs Assessment has explored many challenges low-income individuals and communities face in CALS’ service area, and illuminates the need for strong, strategic advocacy to address them. Just as important, the process has identified and strengthened relationships with many potential partners who share CALS’ concern for justice. This report … suggests a strong leadership role for CALS in broadening understanding of these challenges and galvanizing others to join together to confront them.
With limited resources CALS will have to choose its priorities wisely; the community interviews suggest CALS should also choose boldly—to look broadly and creatively at how it can use its legal talent to partner with others and to leverage and focus its resources to aggressively tackle the problems of low-income and vulnerable populations in Arkansas."
Virginia Legal Aid Society 2012 Needs Assessment
As part of its strategic planning process, Virginia Legal Aid Society conducted a three-part legal needs assessment that included surveys, community, and focus groups. The paper survey was divided into two sections (Part A and Part B) and distributed to low-income people seeking services at partner community agencies. More than 600 paper surveys were collected. Through its website, the online survey received more than 300 responses.
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri 2014 Priorities Plan
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM) used a multifaceted approach to conduct its legal needs assessment and priority setting process. To obtain qualitative feedback, a priorities planning committee made up of LSEM staff and graduate interns questioned a sample of the community through surveys and focus groups. With input from LSEM's staff of attorneys, non-attorney advocates, paralegals, and social workers, the committee developed two surveys asking respondents to rate the priority and need of specific legal topics and areas. One survey was distributed to community members. The other survey was sent to social service providers, other professionals, and the legal community.
Each focus group followed the same general agenda, beginning with asking participants about their initial impressions of LSEM. This gave the facilitators a sense of what the program's reputation is in the community. Then, after the facilitator gave a brief overview of the services LSEM offers, participants were asked to discuss three key questions:
- Keeping the presentation in mind, in which legal areas have you (or your clients) experienced the most difficulty in the past four years?
- How did you (or your clients) resolve these difficulties? With LSEM or using other resources?
- Has anything kept you (or your clients) from accessing LSEM services?
Minnesota Bar Association 2011 Needs Study
Minnesota Bar Association, with funding help from several organizations, commissioned a legal needs study titled "Overcoming Barriers that Prevent Low-Income Persons from Resolving Civil Legal Problems." The study sought to identify the characteristics of low-income people in Minnesota who were disproportionately underserved by civil legal aid providers, identify the barriers that impede their access to legal services, and recommend strategies to reduce those barriers.
Colorado Legal Services 2011 Legal Needs Assessment
Colorado Legal Services' statewide legal needs assessment relied on two surveys. The first was designed specifically for clients in order to determine satisfaction with current services and interest in future assistance. The second survey was intended for members of the judiciary, human service agencies, and members of the private bar.
Legal Services NYC 2008 Civil Needs Assessment
Legal Services NYC released "New Yorkers in Crisis," a report on civil legal needs assessment that was conducted in 2008. The report involved in-depth research that included interviews with stakeholders, surveys of staff, community-based advocacy organizations and politicians, and an analysis of a broad variety of academic and policy-oriented research on poverty matters.
Sample Priority Setting
Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation 2013 Priorities
To ensure that program priority areas accurately reflected community need, the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation set priorities that incorporated an analysis of the results of its big legal needs assessment conducted in 2011 and its case statistics.
The legal needs assessment, which surveyed members of the legal community, social service providers, and low-income people in the service area, revealed that housing and income-related issues were the most important types of cases. However, case statistics showed that more than half of Land of Lincoln's resources were being allocated to family law. In order to balance the amount of time devoted to each case type, the 2013 priorities established minimum percentage times that must be devoted to each priority area of service.
Each priority below included goals and objectives:
- Income security
- Safe and affordable housing
- Health care
- Family safety and stability
- Consumer protection
- Quality education
- Protection of seniors and persons with disabilities
Land of Lincoln also established strategies for recruiting private bar and other volunteers, providing services to populations with special vulnerabilities, promoting race equity, and using grants from non-LSC funders.
In 2016, the Land of Lincoln conducted a comprehensive needs assessment, which examined the legal needs of senior clients in central and southern Illinois. Their report outlines the data collection methods, a summary of the raw data, and the findings and implications of the assessment.
Utah Legal Services 2015 Case Service Priorities
Utah Legal Services developed a three-tier hierarchy addressing case service priorities to establish the organization's most important, moderately significant, and least critical case services.
Separate priority lists existed for:
- Core case service priorities
- Migrant farm worker program
- Native American program
- Seniors and elder law
- Pro bono program
Iowa Legal Aid 2014 Priority Setting Process
Iowa Legal Aid's staff and board of directors conducted a priority setting process, which included a staff committee, demographic research, research of emerging legal problems for low-income people, and collection of input from a wide variety of stakeholders. Surveys were administered to local advisory councils from each of the organization's offices; volunteer lawyers; former clients, including those with limited English proficiency; and the general public through a link to a survey on Iowa Legal Aid's website. The following priorities were adopted:
- Preserving safety and stability of individuals and families
- Preserving the home
- Maintaining or improving economic stability
- Obtaining necessary health care
- Preserving fundamental rights for populations with special vulnerabilities
- Obtaining assistance in emergency situations
- Ensuring access to advice and referral
- Increasing knowledge through legal education
- Expanding access to resources through partnerships
- Obtaining improved delivery of legal services