Wayne Moore Makes Suggestions for Legal Aid on “How to Cut Costs Without Cutting Services”

Wayne Moore has responded to the legal aid budget crisis with this insightful and intensely practical memo on how legal aid programs can protect service delivery in a tough time.  I urge all, including those who have been somewhat critical of some of Wayne’s earlier writing, to read this memo for its myriad suggestions that are grounded in a lifetime of experimentation and innovation in the delivery system.   I am sure that there is no program in the country that would not benefit substantially from implementing several — or more — of these ideas.  I would ask everyone to please circulate it as widely as possible, including to those at all levels of legal aid programs and access groups.  I would also encourage discussion in the Comments on the appropriateness of these ideas in particular contexts, and how best to implement them.

How to Cut Costs Without Cutting Services 

By Wayne Moore

The recent tragic cuts in LSC funding for 2012 will force grantees to make difficult decisions to balance their budgets. This memo offers ideas for making these cuts in a way that preserves as many client services as possible. It is organized by service:

  • intake
  • referrals
  • legal advice
  • limited action
  • uncontested court cases
  • contested court cases suitable for unbundling
  • other contested cases
  • pro bono services
  • impact advocacy.

It also offers other ideas for improving efficiency and productivity. The sources for the factual statements and statistics used in this memo are provided in my book, Delivering Legal Services to Low-Income People ($39 at www.createspace.com/3466223 ). Several of these ideas require significant changes to the way services are delivered. But my experience is that change is often easier during times of crisis. Staff is more willing to accept change if they are convinced that more clients will benefit.


Sometimes changes in intake can both benefit clients and substantially reduce costs. Intake can constitute up to 25 percent of the cost of an extended services case. This is because some programs have multiple points of telephone intake and/or multiple steps in their intake process. Centralizing telephone intake and eliminating certain intake steps are good ways to save money.


A.  Centralizing intake

If telephone intake occurs at more than one office or unit within a program, centralizing it at one of these points is likely to save money. Information and referral services find that decentralized intake costs around $16.35 per call, while centralized intake averages about $5.20 per call as a result of economies of scale and more efficient use of staff.

Centralized intake staff can more easily use protocols to ensure that cases are handled efficiently. If a program has a hotline, all cases likely to need advice only can be referred there. Appropriate clients can be scheduled for the next pro se clinic. Certain high-volume cases (e.g., debt problems for those who are judgment-proof) can be referred directly to a staff member who specializes in them. Cases appropriate for volunteers can be referred to the pro bono unit, thereby helping to utilize all available volunteers.

The intake system is the first and often only contact a client has with a program, since most intake systems turn away more people than they accept. Centralized systems can be better managed to make sure that rejected clients are not reluctant to use services in the future and their friends and neighbors aren’t discouraged from calling at all.

B.  Eliminating steps

For maximum efficiency, a client should interact with only two people before he or she is accepted (or rejected) for services. One interaction is required to screen for eligibility, because LSC grantees have complicated eligibility and documentation criteria. The second contact should be able to accept a client for services, and, preferably, be able to close most cases requiring only advice or limited action, as these are the majority of cases closed. In a few circumstances, the second person may only provisionally accept cases for representation, such as clients sent to the pro bono unit where a volunteer may not be available.

Many programs still use case review meetings to screen cases. These meetings can use up to 7.3 percent of advocates’ annual billable hours and delay the commencement of services. These meetings should be eliminated. Their training benefit can be provided at much less expense using other methods.

The most efficient system is a centralized telephone screening unit that refers most eligible clients to a hotline or a staff person who provides specialized brief services. Cases likely to require extended services should be referred to the appropriate manager for assignment to staff or a referral back to intake to decline representation. This minimizes steps and sends cases to the most efficient case handler.

Clients with communication, emotional, or mental health problems; certain farm workers, Native Americans, and people with limited English proficiency; and others with special needs will require more expensive intake systems. But the needs of a few shouldn’t be a reason for all clients to receive more expensive intake processing.

C.  Eliminating informal intake processes

Some programs receive cases through informal intake processes, as when an advocate receives a call from a prior client. These processes should be eliminated, because such cases rarely utilize the least expensive delivery system.


Referrals can needlessly deplete the resources of other legal aid and community service agencies that serve low-income people. The cost of handling an inaccurate referral and referring a caller elsewhere costs $16 to $20. Inaccurate referrals can create a bouncing process, costing $16 to $20 for every additional referral. In addition, bouncing tends to exhaust vulnerable clients first, so that most services end up going to the ablest clients.

A referral is likely to be inaccurate unless the referring agency knows the eligibility requirements, case priorities, and current capacity of the recipient to accept new cases for each case type. It may be better to refer all low-income people to an information and referral service dedicated to helping clients obtain the services they need. Other clients can be referred to the bar referral service.


A.  Implementing a hotline

By far the most efficient way to handle advice-only cases is a hotline. A hotline advocate can close 1360 cases annually and refer 340 more cases to other parts of the program. Some close as many as 2600 cases. Hotline advocates do not have to be in the same location (although this has some advantages), so a program can easily create a hotline by designating existing staff to receive hotline calls during certain hours each week. A centralized intake system can facilitate this process. To determine if your program can benefit from a hotline, make the following calculations using the assumption that 70 percent of your least time-consuming advice cases can be closed by a hotline.

  1.  Determine the total number of hours that are billed annually to all cases in your case management system. (LSC regulations require that you keep these data.)
  2.  Estimate the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) advocates (attorneys and paralegals) who billed these hours. (If an attorney spent 50 percent of his time on these cases, 30 percent on other client services including matters and impact advocacy, and 20 percent on non-billable hours, this would count as 0.625 FTEs [50/80] devoted to cases.)
  3.  Divide the total hours in (1) by the total number of FTE advocates in (2): this is the average number of hours billed to cases per year by a FTE advocate. (If 120,000 hours were billed to cases by 100 FTE advocates, this would yield 1200 hours annually per FTE.)
  4.  Identify the 70 percent of your closed advice cases that require the least time per case. Calculate the (a) total time billed to these cases and (b) number of these cases.
  5.  Divide 4a by 4b: this is the average number of hours billed to the least time-consuming advice-only cases. (If 5440 hours are spent on 2720 closed advice cases, then each case averages 2 hours.)
  6.  Divide (3) by (5): this is the number of advice cases that can be closed by a FTE advocate. (If a FTE advocate annually bills an average of 1200 hours to cases and an advice case averages 2 hours, then a FTE advocate closes 600 of these advice cases annually.)
  7.  Divide 4b by (6): this is the number of FTE advocates used to close 70 percent of your advice cases. (If 2720 cases represent 70 percent of the advice cases closed annually and an FTE can close 600 of these cases, then you use 4.5 FTE advocates to close these cases).
  8.  Divide 4b by 1360: this is the number of FTE hotline advocates required to close 70 percent of your advice cases. (It requires 2 FTE hotline advocates to close 2720 cases [2720/1360].)
  9.  Subtract (8) from (7): this is the number of FTE advocates that will be freed up if you converted to a hotline (4.5 FTE minus 2 FTE advocates equals 2.5 FTE advocates).
  10. In this example, the average number of billable hours per FTE advocate is 1200 (number 3 above) and the average number of hours billed to an advice case is 2 (number 5 above). This means one FTE advocate closes 600 advice cases annually (number 6 above). But an FTE hotline advocate can close 1360 advice cases annually, thereby allowing 2 FTE hotline advocates to do the work currently done by 4.5 advocates. Using intake to divert these cases to a hotline, 2 FTE advocates can be transferred to hotline work and the other 2.5 FTE advocates can be laid off, if necessary, without reducing services.

B.  Increasing efficiency

A rule of thumb in the prepaid legal services industry is that the average telephone advice call lasts 10 minutes. Hotlines that collect this information report averages between 7 and 15 minutes. Time spent recording case notes and sending follow-up letters should not average more than 20 to 30 minutes using commercially available technology. If an advocate averages more than 45 to 60 minutes on advice cases, the supervisor should determine why. This advocate should be required to keep careful track of client phone time to allow the manager to identify how the excessive time is being spent. Overly long calls can be shortened by training the advocate in call management techniques. Excessive non-call time can be reduced by using the case management system and standardized paragraphs to prepare case notes and follow-up letters.

C.  Eliminating processes that bypass the hotline

In some programs a large number of advice cases are not handled by the hotline, as when some offices or units don’t route all advice calls through the hotline. These processes should be eliminated; otherwise too much time is spent on these advice cases.


Determine the average time spent on these cases by case type. For example, calculate the average time spent on limited action cases involving debtor relief (other than bankruptcies). Next, identify three categories of these cases:

  • Frequently occurring case types. These cases can often be handled in a systematic manner. For example, consider judgment-proof clients who are being dunned by creditors. Advocates can use a fill-in-the-blanks form to prepare letters to creditors and send copies of the letters to clients for signature and mailing, along with supplemental self-help materials for further guidance (average 2 hours) and instructions to call the advocate if the problem persists. Similarly, advocates can prepare wills, trusts, and advance directives by filling out a form during the interview, entering information from the form into a document generator to produce the final documents, sending the documents to the client for review, and supervising the execution of the documents (which might include another review and last minute changes) (average 2.5 to 3 hours). If the average time spent on these and similar case types exceeds 2 to 3 hours, consider having intake staff send these cases to designated staff who use streamlined methods.
  • Cases requiring extended services but are provided brief services instead, because of the lack of resources. Determine the outcomes of these cases. If an easily identifiable group of these cases tends to have unsatisfactory outcomes, consider declining such cases at intake (“Programs closed 130,000 advice and brief services cases during the test period. Programs estimated that, in the case of 76,000 of these cases, extended services would have been more likely to enable the client to obtain a satisfactory outcome.” Legal Services Corporation, Documenting the Justice Gap in America. 6 fn8 [Sept. 2005] at http://www.lsc.gov/sites/default/files/LSC/pdfs/documenting_the_justice_gap_in_america_2009.pdf).
  • Most time-consuming cases. Consider methods for streamlining the way these cases are handled. Next, determine if volunteer attorneys can handle some of these cases in the future. Finally, consider discontinuing services for lower-priority cases.

Staff time saved by increased productivity or discontinuing certain case types can be the basis for cutbacks.


Fifty-eight percent of the cases that LSC grantees close with a court decision are uncontested. Court-based self-help centers can close many of these cases using a fraction of the time spent by LSC grantees, because they handle clients on a walk-in basis (eliminating the need for scheduling), help them fill out and file the required forms, and provide them with the self-help information and materials necessary to complete their cases, usually with the help of volunteers. Examples include uncontested divorces, name changes, guardianships, conservatorships, adoptions, temporary restraining orders, and certain custody/visitation cases.

For example, four court-based self-help centers operated by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County helped 49,100 clients during a recent year using only 10 FTE advocates, whereas all LSC grantees closed 44,258 uncontested court cases in 2010 (2010 LSC Fact Book at 19; Diana Avendano, Self-Help Project Coordinator, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, e-mail to author dated July 20, 2006). Seventy percent of states have at least one court-based self-help center (Rebecca Sandefur, “Access Across America,” 2011). Thus, programs should refer these cases whenever possible to such centers. In return, programs can accept referrals of cases that require advice or other services described in this memo.

If courts in your area do not have a self-help center, offer to place an advocate at the court. A part-time advocate (even a paralegal, since legal advice is not usually provided) can operate a self-help center for limited hours. A program’s intake protocols can determine which clients to refer to the court-based advocate; intake staff can send these referred clients documents verifying their LSC eligibility, so that center services can be counted as cases (otherwise, they must be counted as matters).

To determine the cost savings possible with this approach, calculate the average time spent on closed, uncontested court decisions for certain case types. The vast majority of these cases occur in the areas of bankruptcy/debt relief, collection, adoption, custody/visitation, divorce/separation, guardianship, name change, domestic abuse, support, landlord/tenant, minor guardianship/conservatorship, child neglect/abuse/dependent, and wills/estates. If any of these averages is significantly above the few hours these cases require at a self-help center, consider implementing this approach. The savings realized from making this change can be the basis for cost cutting.


Programs can close many contested (and uncontested) court cases using unbundled services, as more and more courts are making unbundled practices feasible. After retiring from AARP, I successfully engaged in an unbundled law practice for three years serving low- and moderate-income people in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. I handled the following cases:

  • Chapter 7, no net assets bankruptcies
  • debt cases where the client was judgment proof
  • landlord/tenant cases where client had no defenses
  • uncontested divorces, including those where the whereabouts of the spouse was unknown
  • child support cases where the incomes of the parents could be readily determined
  • enforcement of child support, alimony, and custody orders
  • visitation cases where a spouse was being denied visitation and no abuse was being alleged
  • cases seeking reasonable changes to child support or visitation orders
  • immigration applications for naturalization and family visas where there were no complications
  • creation of LLCs and non-profit corporations for small businesses
  • small claims cases where the proof was straight-forward
  • simple wills
  • PoAs and HPoAs
  • simple living trusts
  • marital separation agreements
  • name changes
  • deeds

I never went to court and most of these cases rarely took more than 2 to 4 hours even though my flat fees entitled clients to unlimited telephone advice up to the court hearing or trial. I even handled some contested divorces.

After screening for suitability, I suggest handling these cases as follows:

  • Bankruptcy: While interviewing clients, I filled out most of the forms in pen (forms of pro se clients don’t need to be typed); I then asked them to fill out forms F, I, and J and return them to me along with other documents I required. (Best Cases software has a feature that allows all creditor and debt information from the three credit bureaus to be downloaded onto F forms, which then can be supplemented by the client). I reviewed the returned forms and documents over the phone with clients, made necessary changes using white-out, and mailed them the complete package of forms with post-it notes indicating where to sign. I did not sign the forms. Clients filed the forms and represented themselves at hearings following my written and oral advice. They also represented themselves at hearings to allow the retention of a car. I served hundreds of clients in this way and didn’t encounter a problem; but if one does arise, attorneys can always enter their appearance in the case. Average time: 3 hours.
  • Child support: I used document generation to complete all the required forms and prepared pro se subpoenas and other documents needed to obtain the opposing party’s income and health insurance information. I also calculated the amount of child support that should be awarded using the required formulas. Clients filed all the papers, arranged for service of process, and represented themselves at the hearing using the subpoenaed documents and papers proving their own income. I provided oral and written advice throughout the process. Average time: 2 to 3 hours.
  • Enforcement of child support, alimony, and custody orders; visitation cases where a spouse was being denied visitation and no abuse was being alleged; and cases seeking reasonable changes to child support or visitation orders: I handled these in the same way as child support cases. Average time 2 to 3 hours.
  • Domestic abusetemporary protective orders: Although I did not handle these cases, others have successfully used unbundled services by preparing pleadings and affidavits and advising the client on how proceed pro se. The client can then be referred to social services for additional help, and the attorney can reenter the case as needed.
  • SSI disability cases: You can contract these out to private practice attorneys by paying them the difference between an agreed-upon flat fee and the recovery they receive from SSA. The cost is usually much less than having program staff handle these cases. This allows the program to handle other cases where alternative representation is not available.
  • Landlord/tenant cases with no defenses: In some states pro se clients who have been coached can obtain as much time to move out as those who are represented. (Clients with defenses must receive full representation; even representation during negotiation isn’t very effective unless the attorney is willing to proceed to trial).
  • Contested divorce: I even handled some contested divorce cases where the other side was represented by a lawyer. I prepared my client’s court pleadings and a draft separation agreement favorable to my client, which could be used as a starting point in my client’s negotiations with his or her spouse. I told my client never to talk to the opposing attorney but to speak only to the spouse. I would help the client through the discovery process by preparing interrogatories, motions, requests for documents and pro se subpoenas. By that time, the opposing spouse’s legal bills had usually reached $7000 to $10,000 whereas my client had spent less than $1000. This difference in fees often caused the opposing spouse to agree to a settlement, with guidance from his or her counsel. I advised my client throughout the process, but never talked to the opposing counsel or anyone else.

These cases should be monitored until the conclusion to ensure clients obtain their objectives. Sometimes the advocate can reopen or appeal cases with unfavorable outcomes. . Furthermore, programs can use outcome information to develop better protocols for screening out cases that are inappropriate for unbundled services. Time saved using these services can serve as the basis for cutbacks.

Many of the cases above are the most common contested court decision cases closed by LSC grantees, namely bankruptcy/debt relief; custody/visitation, divorce/separation; support; and landlord/tenant. Programs should calculate the average number of hours billed to these closed contested cases, and if the averages are significantly above 2 to 4 hours, consider this approach and use the savings for cost cutting.

Note that I was able to engage in unbundled services in Virginia even though its courts and ethics codes do not facilitate unbundled practices. This was because the courts I dealt with allowed the ghostwriting of court pleadings without disclosure of the name of the drafting attorney.


Pro bono delivery systems are more cost-effective than staff delivery systems, but only if they handle extended services cases, because the legal work is free. They are often less cost-effective than staff in delivering advice and limited action services, because of the cost of recruiting and training volunteers and screening and referring these cases to them. It can take over an hour to screen, refer, and monitor an advice-only case that takes the volunteer only 30 minutes to close. (The exception is when these volunteers work in a high-volume delivery system such as a self-help center or a pro se workshop.) Also, LSC grantees do not use all available volunteer lawyers every year, often because they don’t have referral cases that match the lawyers’ expertise.

There are several ways to increase pro bono services without increasing costs. One is to ensure that most of the referred cases require extended services. The best way to achieve this is to allow the pro bono unit first choice in selecting eligible cases rather than staff advocates, as is more common. Another method is to simplify the referral process and spend more resources on finding cases that match volunteers’ expertise. This method uses an Internet-based scheduling system that allows volunteers to commit in advance (and change as needed) the types of cases they will accept and the months during which they will accept them. This commitment process should be a condition of participation. Staff can then refer cases without additional volunteer approval and devote more time to finding the right case mix through partnerships with libraries, social service agencies, and the courts. If the pro bono unit refers more cases or more complex cases without an increase in costs, staff who formerly handled these cases can be laid off, if necessary.


These are cases other than those listed above that require a settlement with or without litigation, a contested court decision, or an administrative agency decision. Programs should avoid cutting these services if at all possible, particularly those that involve basic human needs such as income, food, shelter, medical care, protection from violence, or the custody and support of children and vulnerable older people. These cases are so important that Civil Gideon advocates believe they should give rise to a right to free representation. Also, these cases meet the criteria that many non-profits use to prioritize services, namely maximizing value added. They currently represent less than 13 percent of all cases handled by LSC grantees. Experienced advocates should primarily handle these cases and impact advocacy, leaving other services to specialized delivery systems such as hotlines, court-based self-help centers, pro bono units, and staff dedicated to certain limited action cases.



Efficiencies can even be applied to impact advocacy if programs prioritize their work by the expected time required. A program a may want to forgo an expensive litigation case in favor of forming a coalition to address the issue. For example, coordinating the services of the police, social services workers, legal services programs, and others can considerably improve overall services to victims of domestic violence. A program should select cases for individual representation that support its impact advocacy goals, as individual case services can have an effect beyond the clients who are represented. For example, programs can represent all tenants in neighborhoods targeted for gentrification to preserve housing for low-income families. Or they can represent several victims of a predatory business to force the business to change its practices.


Improvements in efficiency allow programs to provide the same services at a lower cost.

A.  Document generators

Using document generators instead of filling in forms, cutting and pasting, or drafting documents from scratch can substantially improve productivity. One prepaid legal services provider noted that its Boston advocates were less efficient than those in its Washington, D.C. office. The managing partner found that the Boston advocates were not using the firm’s document generator to the extent possible; instead they were using fill-in forms and cut-and-paste. The Boston advocates were told (nicely) that if this wasn’t corrected, they should look for other jobs. Subsequently the productivity of the Boston office matched that of the Washington office. Commercial document generators are available to many legal services programs, sometimes at a discount. (See www.directlaw.com.)

B.  Ratio of managers to advocate staff

Another indicator of efficiency concerns the ratio of total managers to total staff. Consultants that advise city and county government law offices recommend the ratio of management attorneys to non-management attorneys be no more than 0.10 to 0.15. (See James Wilber, Altman Weil, Best Practices of City and County Civil Law Offices at www.altmanweil.com/dir_docs/resource/b0541231-be60-491b-96ab-c6f1d5e1b4c5_document.pdf. ) In contrast, the average ratio of management attorneys to non-management attorneys and paralegals for all LSC grantees in 2010 was 0.25, with 1128 managing and supervising attorneys and 4553 staff attorneys and paralegals (2010 LSC Fact Book at 35). Program directors should calculate this ratio and determine if it can be reduced. One way to reduce it is to assign more casework to managers.

C.  Ratio of non-advocate staff to total staff

A useful metric for assessing the efficiency of program administration is to calculate the number of other staff (those who are not attorneys or paralegals) as a percentage of total staff. The average for LSC grantees is 35 percent (2009). Programs should calculate this percentage and, if it is high, look for ways to reduce it. A higher percentage can be justified if the additional staff supports more cases, extended services, appeals per advocate, or a greater amount of other client services.

D.  Measuring billable hours per advocate

A good way of determining efficiency is to measure the average number of billable hours devoted by a program’s advocates to cases closed during the year (total number of hours billed to cases in the case management system that are closed during the year divided by the total number of FTE attorneys and paralegals devoted to these cases). LSC grantees are required by regulation to collect and aggregate this information. Time used for leave, administration, case review meetings, trainings, and other similar activities should not be counted as billable hours. Programs should also calculate the average number of hours billed to these closed cases for each closure code (i.e., one hour for a closed advice-only case).

Programs, offices, or advocates with a higher average of billable hours per advocate are likely to be more productive. This is not true if the additional time, in the form of more hours per closure code, is being devoted to routine services. For example, suppose one program’s average number of billable hours per advocate is higher than another’s. The program is not necessarily more productive if this additional time can be traced to more time per case being spent on advice and limited action cases.

E.  Supervise caseloads for efficiency

Providers of prepaid legal services measure efficiency by monitoring the time billed to every case by every advocate. Prepaid providers are typically paid for services at below-market rates by administrators who are, in turn, paid by unions, employers, or employees. Therefore they are obsessed with efficiency and client satisfaction, since other providers are waiting to take their place if their efficiency or quality declines. If an open case appears to be taking too much time or if an advocate is spending more time than the average for a particular type of case, a supervisor conducts a case review to look for inefficiencies and coaches the advocate on how to be more efficient.

F.  Telephone delivery

Many services delivered by phone tend to take far less time than face-to-face services, especially interviews, advice, and brief services. Prepaid legal services providers discovered this in their ongoing attempt to maximize efficiency and thereby maximize profits. Thus programs should use phone delivery as much as possible. Evidence indicates that the outcomes of telephone services are as good as or better than those of face-to-face services. Nevertheless, when implementing a shift from face-to-face delivery to telephone delivery, measure outcomes to ensure that quality is not affected.

G.  Group services

Delivering some services to groups rather than individuals can be more efficient. Programs provide pro se workshops in a variety of issue areas, including family law, housing, consumer, bankruptcy, guardianship, employment, special education, criminal record expungement, advance directives, and driver’s license renewals. It is essential that these cases be monitored until conclusion to ensure that clients obtain their objectives. Also, one should be mindful that unbundled services can sometimes consume less time per case and with better results than group services.

H.  Work plans

Most legal services programs provide a wide range of client services that require careful coordination to optimize their results. For example, housing-related services can include outreach to identify the neediest clients, community education and written materials to help them understand their legal rights, assisted self-help to address simpler matters, pro se workshops to help them with common problems, individual representation to resolve complex problems, group representation to help housing groups resolve shared problems, and impact advocacy to address systemic problems.

The proven way to manage such a diverse and interrelated set of services is a program-wide work plan with objectives, action steps, staff allocations, and measures of success. Such a plan helps staff understand how their work relates to the whole and ensures that each service supports the others. It enhances productivity by keeping staff focused on the highest-priority objectives and ensuring that the work of one group is completed in time for use by another, such as materials for a series of pro se workshops. Programs should update their boards quarterly on the plan’s progress, including measures of success, and as problems arise, the board can help suggest solutions. This will also help the program operate like a law firm instead of a collection of sole practitioners.

I.  Quality and quantity committee

Evidence suggests that the quality and quantity of services can be enhanced by creating a central committee within the program that focuses on quality and best practices and sets quantitative goals for advocate staff. (Jeanne Charn, Quality Assurance at the Provider Level: Integrating Law Office Approaches with Funder Needs, at www.mbf.org/JAGWG5QualityAssuranceattheProviderLevel.pdf). Programs should consider establishing such a committee.

If you have questions or need more information, please contact me (Wayne Moore) at (202) 997-9375 or wmoore95@yahoo.com.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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