A few months ago, I was particularly excited to hear about a Minnesota initiative that leveraged the power of 211 systems with the legal help resources developed by that state’s access community to achieve a huge increase in usage of those access resources. I invited the Executive Director of Call for Justice, to write for this blog about how the project came to be. I am proud to publish her response here. Every state should be doing things like this, and the national network should be linking with national informational networks like that of the 211 operators.
Something Out of Nothing: Leveraging Ideas to Open Access
By Ellen Krug
A little more than two years ago, I (Ellen) walked into a completely empty conference room in the building that houses United Way’s headquarters in Minneapolis. It was to be the office of a brand new nonprofit, Call for Justice, LLC. My charge: create from the ground up a program aimed at opening civil legal access in the Twin Cities by training United Way 2-1-1 Information & Referral Specialists (the persons who answer, “May I help you?” when anyone dials “2-1-1”) on how to make better civil legal referrals.
Historically, the local United Way 2-1-1 receives 35,000 legal needs calls a year, making it the largest legal referral agent in the Twin Cities. However, many of its referrals were off target or made time and again to the same places, like Legal Aid or a volunteer lawyers organization. The goal was to spread out the referrals so that callers got to the right place the first time (e.g. a caller with immigration needs gets referred to a nonprofit immigrant law provider).
With nearly thirty years’ experience as a trial lawyer, who formed a law firm in the mid-1990s before embarking on a second career as nonprofit executive director, I set about to do my work.
Four months later, the entire Call for Justice staff (consisting of just two people—myself and a program content manager) began training twenty-five United Way 2-1-1 Information & Referral Specialists and their managers on how to make better targeted referrals to Twin Cities nonprofit legal providers. The training materials were completely organic; lacking a template, I began a training manual with “Session 1: Basics of the Civil Legal System.”
And basics it was—the difference between a civil and criminal matter, the role of Legal Aid, and the importance of the Federal Poverty Guidelines in determining program eligibility. Soon, we reached out to speakers from various nonprofit legal providers, social service agencies, and law firms, who trained on topics ranging from “Landlord-Tenant Law 101” to “Sticky Family Law Issues” and immigration law basics. Every training session focused on the Twin Cities legal resources to which referrals should be made.
As our network and awareness of resources broadened, the training topics expanded. A session on community mediation services proved eye-opening for both the 2-1-1 folks and our staff because it offered a completely different referral avenue for callers facing neighbor or vendor disputes. Another session, “Tips on Efficient and Caring Interviewing Techniques,” taught by domestic violence counselors, instructed on how to keep 2-1-1 callers focused while still empathizing with their situations.
Within several months, call taxonomy revealed that 2-1-1 legal referrals were spreading out, and becoming more varied. Legal resources that were previously overlooked suddenly started receiving many referrals. Some results were outright dramatic, like a near 800% increase in referrals to LawHelpMN.org, the web-based resource site for Legal Aid in Minnesota
Along the way, my imagination was sparked.
I wondered, “What if other social service agencies were exposed to legal programming information? Would it be possible to better connect nonprofit legal providers and social service agencies to open civil access?”
With the consent of an open-minded board of directors, Call for Justice became a convener of agencies and people. By mid-2012, we launched the “Legal Liaison Program,” which brings together representatives of more than fifty legal and social services providers, with the primary goal of communicating in person. Thus, a key component of our thrice-yearly Legal Liaison meetings is “speed networking,” where people network in eight minute increments and then switch conversation partners. Our imagination has extended to creating the first list of pro bono (no fee) interpreters and translators in Minnesota (23 persons representing 13 languages), which came about when a Legal Liaison organization asked if we could assist with an interpreting need.
Call for Justice then leveraged the Legal Liaison Program to take on the role of facilitator for collaborations that increase civil legal access. We identified the Jeremiah Program, which works to elevate approximately eighty women and nearly 100 children from intergenerational poverty, as lacking any on-going legal provider relationship. With visioning, persistence, and a bit of wrangling, we facilitated Jeremiah’s “adoption” by two major Minneapolis law firms. Now, attorneys go to Jeremiah’s two Twin Cities campuses to provide pro bono advice and representation on family law, personal safety (orders for protection), debt protection, and other needs. The “Jeremiah Collaboration” has become a model for other potential Twin Cities collaborations.
We’ve since facilitated more collaborations, including a soon-to-be announced community law firm that two Twin Cities law schools will sponsor. The law firm will employ new law graduates and serve the working poor—families and individuals caught in the “justice gap” between 200% and 325% FPG.
We have also leveraged our United Way 2-1-1 training materials by posting them on our website. This includes videos we make of each training session. Incredibly, views of the videos are growing at the rate of approximately 30 percent a month!
Most recently, Call for Justice hosted a seminar/CLE titled, “’I Didn’t Know That!’ Relatively Unknown Twin Cities Legal Resources.” Nearly 100 legal and social services representatives listened to panelists from United Way 2-1-1, court self-help centers, bar association low bono programs, law libraries, and an upcoming on-line legal advice program. Attendees were provided a sixteen page “Legal Resources Cheat Sheet,” which we created from our United Way 2-1-1 training materials—another example of leveraging.
How can others replicate the work of Call for Justice?
The keys are imagination and collaboration.
Call for Justice came about when our founders—a group of determined legal professionals—imagined an organization that could systemically connect people in legal need with legal providers. Since we don’t represent clients directly, our time is devoted to assessing the delivery of legal services, where we can spot gaps or duplication, and envision improvements. We then persistently work to make the system more open, one collaborative project at a time.
And yes, it takes money: twenty-nine law firms, two Bar foundations and two local foundations pledged $500,000 to fund Call for Justice for three years. (That funding will expire next year and we are now independently fundraising.)
Still, increasing civil legal access doesn’t require a half million dollars. United Way 2-1-1 operations cover 90 percent of the country. A bar association delivery of legal services committee could easily make training the local United Way 2-1-1 on legal referrals a priority and begin coordinating speakers and materials. Additionally, attorneys, bar executives, and social service leaders are all aware of various programs that involve legal needs. It costs nothing other than time to approach a law firm with the idea of “adopting” a social services program to provide on-going pro bono services. If the “adoption” comes to fruition, the payoffs can be immense—one affinity group assisting another affinity group.
What about the “I Didn’t Know That!” seminar/CLE which Call for Justice originated? That too, can be easily duplicated. A coordinator need only to identify court, bar association, and library resources that are relatively unknown to the community at large. Yes, there’s time and effort involved in putting on such a seminar, but any CLE requires time and effort. Relatively few are the kind like this—which spans the divide between legal and social service providers.
In the past few months, I’ve talked to a number of agencies about Call for Justice and its work. I’m happy to discuss our model with anyone and provide materials we’ve created to get others started.
Remember, it’s about leveraging from one idea to another and another. The starting point is using one’s imagination!