Innovations in Civil Legal Aid

2015 NLADA Conference
November 6, 2015

Periodically, we moderate a panel at the NLADA Conference in partnership with Management Information Exchange and the AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly that highlights innovative projects, advocacy, and tools developed by legal aid organizations.

View or download the 2015 Innovations in Civil Legal Aid PowerPoint slides.

Volunteer Engagement & Private Attorney Involvement

Pro Bono Medical-Legal Partnership

Through Legal Aid of Arkansas' medical-legal partnership, Walmart attorneys provide free legal services to patients at Arkansas Children's Hospital. A medical-legal partnership includes lawyers as part of the team working with patients to alleviate, through legal intervention, social or other stressors that are impacting their health. Doctors, nurses, and social workers benefit from the partnership by receiving training on how to screen for possible legal issues that affect their patient's health and wellbeing.

Walmart attorneys provide free legal services to help patients with issues concerning Medicaid benefits and services, special education, and guardianships. In Medical-Legal Partnership: A Promising Direction for Pro Bono, published in “Metropolitan Corporate Counsel," Walmart’s Associate General Counsel, Lori Chumbler, discusses the Arkansas partnership and the reason why Walmart chose to make such a commitment.

Since the program's start in 2011, more than 700 patients have been referred through the hospital. A little more than 120 Walmart attorneys and professional staff associates have volunteered approximately 1,400 hours on various pro bono projects, including patient cases worth more than $200,000 in free legal services.

Housing Right to Counsel

In D.C., unequal access to counsel is particularly acute in eviction cases. In the Landlord and Tenant Branch of D.C. Superior Court, approximately 95 percent of landlords are represented while 90-95 percent of tenants are unrepresented. Landlord Tenant Court has a high volume of more than 34,000 cases filed annually. Unrepresented tenants often waive their rights, fail to raise critical defenses, and are pressured into one-sided agreements that inevitably lead to eviction. To address this need, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center launched the Housing Right to Counsel Project this past summer. 

The project implements a practice model that combines intensive outreach to low-income tenants, a proactive agreement of limited or full representation (at the client's choosing) with no merit screen, and collaboration between legal aid providers and pro bono attorneys. With the support of LSC President Jim Sandman and Peter Edelman, an anti-poverty advocate and professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, the project has secured commitments from more than a dozen DC law firms to take on eviction cases. Through this innovative pro bono model, law firms establish housing practice groups and develop in-house expertise and mentoring capacity.

Though the project has only been operational for a few months, pre-court outreach has proved more successful than any prior effort. About 25 percent of tenants respond to an offer of representation letter. Outreach efforts have also had an impact on tenants. Those who received outreach letters were 20 percent less likely to default, even if they did not follow through on the offer of representation. 

Technology Use

Substantive Law, Local Practices & Resources Wiki

By developing an internal wiki, Counsel and Advocacy Law Line, a subsidiary of Lakeshore Legal Aid, offers attorneys the substantive law, local practices, and resources that they need to serve indigent and senior clients in 43 counties throughout Michigan.

The wiki, which is updated daily, features interactive maps of every county in the state. The maps list funding, local office priorities, court information, local court practices and forms, and county-specific social service resources.

Appointment Reminder System

Missing a court date or an appointment at a legal aid office can have devastating consequences for low-income clients. To reduce these occurrences, Legal Services of Northern Virginia worked with a developer to create an Appointment Reminder System that notifies clients via text message or voice message of upcoming office appointments or court hearing dates. 

The messaging system, funded through a Technology Initiative Grant, merges to mapping fields in the KEMPS case management system and also features additional coding so messages will not be sent to domestic violence victims who are not in a safe environment. 

Since the system launched, Legal Services of Northern Virginia has had a 43 percent reduction of no-shows, and text messaging-based reminder systems are now being replicated across the country.

Effective Legal Representation

Coalition Building & City Government Partnerships

Legal representation for tenants and homeowners with hoarding behaviors facing eviction can be challenging, time-consuming, and frustrating. Community Legal Services utilizes coalition building to facilitate positive legal outcomes for its clients.

By partnering with the City of Philadelphia Mayor's Office, the organization created the Philadelphia Hoarding Task Force in 2013 to expand collaborations for task forces that were often between city or county agencies. Community Legal Services reached out to a number of organizations, including

  • Clutterer's Anonymous
  • National Association of Professional Organizers
  • major landlords for people with disabilities (like the Philadelphia Housing Authority)
  • attorneys who represent the City of Philadelphia for at code enforcement hearings

Community Legal Services also found speakers and trainers from across the U.S. and Canada to educate members of the Philadelphia Hoarding Task Force about hoarding disorders and best practices for hoarding intervention.

Reentry Project

In New York, criminal history is the basis of a protected class regarding employment discrimination but many residents are unfairly denied licenses necessary for some businesses or employment contrary to the New York Corrections Law. LawNY developed a reentry project that provides civil legal services to reentering former offenders. 

The project, funded with a grant from New York State, allows an attorney in LawNY's Rochester office to work on the project in addition to three Equal Justice Works Employment Opportunity Legal Corps fellows. The fellows are housed on the points of a triangle covering LawNY's service area in Jamestown, Ithaca, and Rochester. 

School-Based Legal Assistance

Two of Connecticut's legal aid organizations have school-based legal assistance clinics that help low-income children overcome barriers to educational success that often result from living in poverty.

The Family Legal Clinic aims to provide parents and guardians of students with the legal tools to confront adverse living conditions, homelessness, and other poverty-related stressors that contribute to difficulties succeeding in school.

Run by New Haven Legal Assistance at two school locations in the greater New Haven area, the Family Legal Clinic offers families the opportunity to consult with attorneys on a range of legal issues and provides community legal education through "Know Your Rights" workshops. 

Connecticut Legal Services serves families and children enrolled in Windham County schools through its School-Based Legal Clinic. Working together with school administrators and existing school-based health clinics, Connecticut Legal Services adds attorneys to ongoing collaborative efforts to help students who often experience low school achievement because of stresses caused by legal crises that are affecting their families.