NewsMaker Interview: Kerry O’Brien of Equal Justice Works on the Emerging Need for Evidence-Based Data

Recently, AmeriCorps changed the way they award grants that may be a sign of things to come from federal funding sources. Equal Justice Works has been an AmeriCorps grantee since the national service program’s birth in 1993. AmeriCorps has supported hundreds of fellowships for lawyers and summer stipends for law students providing access to justice.

AmeriCorps has changed the way they award grants with more emphasis on programs that are “evidence-based”, or backed up by research into their efficacy. AmeriCorps also expects Grantees to define specific client outcomes and to achieve those with the three year grant.

This blog has interviewed Kerry O’Brien, Director of Federal Programs and Strategic Initiatives at Equal Justice Works  about this development, and its lessons for the access community.

Blog:  Kerry, first of all let me thank both you personally and Equal Justice Works. Can you tell us in summary the changes AmeriCorps has made?

AmeriCorps, like many federal government programs, is seeking to fund programs which are “evidence-based.”  That is, the program is based on research or backed by statistically significant evaluation findings. We knew in our hearts and our experience that lawyers make a difference – we’ve been funding amazing lawyers for 25 years doing just that.  But when we went to look for the research and evaluation findings AmeriCorps was asking for, we didn’t find much.

This was noted in our last application for funding, which was denied.

We compete against nonprofit organizations in other fields, like education and health, where there is a robust body of research about what works and what doesn’t work, and an agreed-upon system of measuring success (i.e. test scores).  In legal services, we don’t have that same infrastructure.

Blog:  Have you identified any research or evaluation that you think might answer the questions they have?

Rebecca Sandefur’s work is very helpful.  She looked at multiple studies of civil legal cases and drew some broad conclusions about them.  One conclusion is that the more procedurally complex the case, the bigger difference the lawyer makes.

Blog:  Do you have any specific research plans?

We hired John Tull to conduct an evaluation of our veterans work from 2010 to 2012.  We are applying for another three-year grant – the application is due February 6, 2013 – and for that we are being helped by an evaluation expert and are interviewing evaluation firms.

Blog:  Do you think that the AmeriCorps changes might be a warning signal to the access to justice world?

Yes.  The federal government is moving quickly to requiring an evidence-basis for its programs.  In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before the performance results and evidence movement comes to the Legal Services Corporation.  I’m fearful that our sector is not ready and the result will simply be that the government chooses to fund other sectors.

Blog: To put it another way, what should we have in place so that you would have had what you needed to avoid this result?

Legal service organizations should track case outcomes and not just the fact that the case closed, what level of service was provided and the issue area.  When we went to our sites to ask what happened to their clients, many were unable to answer the questions without going back by hand through case files.

Legal service organizations should also have an internal system of follow-up to find out what happens after the legal matter is resolved.  Vermont has an interesting system where paralegals routinely call clients at specified intervals after the case closes.

Funders are not going to be OK with just saying the legal case was closed – they want to know what impact the legal case had.  So, you had a client who asked for a criminal record to be expunged because it was keeping her from getting a living wage job.  You got the criminal record expunged.  Did she get a living wage job?  Sure, it’s not the job of a legal service provider to help someone get a job, but shouldn’t we know whether the client’s ultimate objective was achieved?  If it wasn’t, maybe there is more we can do.

Blog:  Do you think that this is going to become a bigger problem over time?


Blog:  Do you have any broader thoughts on what our community needs to do in this area, and how we can get it started?

We need to take a hard look at other sectors, especially where other professionals are involved like health (doctors, nurses) and education (teachers, counselors) and see the standards that they are being held to and the body of research they are sitting on to inform, inspire, promote and change their work.  I believe this is an existential threat for legal services – that government doesn’t need to fund legal services as an anti-poverty intervention or as a solution to government problems.  I believe in my heart and from my experience that legal services are an effective anti-poverty intervention and that legal services can be a very effective solution to government problems.  But if the funder asks for proof, as is their right to do, what do we have?  The other sectors aren’t perfect and have their challenges, but they are quite a bit farther along than our sector.

Blog:  Anything else you would like to say on this?

Kerry: Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Blog: Thanks again, and lets see what develops.


About richardzorza

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