Social Workers as Nonlawyer Service Providers

The recent Report from the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission includes, in addition to many achievements and interesting ideas, a fascinating statistic about social workers in nonlawyer roles.

The Third Commission, through its Social Services Committee, continued to focus on how advocates at social services agencies and nonprofits serve as legal advocates for their clients. This past July, the Committee surveyed over 500 social service agency workers regarding their role in providing assistance to consumers regarding legal situations, with several interesting findings:

  • The vast majority of surveyed workers (80+%) have answered their client’s legal questions;
  • Workers lack overall knowledge of existing legal resources and legal websites. For example, fewer than 50% of respondents used the website;
  • Fewer than 40% of workers knew which legal service program served their area; and
  • Workers have a great interest and need for additional information and training.

In October 2015, the committee convened a meeting of social service workers and legal service advocates to discuss the findings and to recommend next steps to the Third Commission. While seven recommendations were ultimately made to the Third Commission, the Committee focused initially on creating a website for social service workers. This proposed website – called, for now, the “helphub” – would be designed to educate and assist social service workers and to empower them to provide their clients with the legal information they need. This website would give links to other existing legal resources and websites (as opposed to providing such content itself) and would also have a “live chat” feature whereby, optimally, social service workers could ask lawyers questions and get real-time answers. Rosie’s Place has offered funding for a prototype website.

 That speaks for itself.  A few observations.

There appears to be no worry (as indeed there should not be) about social workers acting inappropriately in terms of providing legal information.

I am not clear about the relationship of prior content to the new website.  While I agree that full use of exiting content makes sense.  It is far from clear to me, however, that the website would not be far stronger with some content that reflects the special characteristics and capabilities of social workers.  Missing this opportunity would be a major mistake.

Similarly, its worth exploring what more social workers can do in terms of helping with information, that others without such qualifications can not necessarily do.  These issues are somewhat explored in the paper on nonlawyer practice that David Udell and I wrote.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in Access to Justice Boards, Access to Justice Generally, Non-Lawyer Practice, Social Workers. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Social Workers as Nonlawyer Service Providers

  1. Charlie Campbell says:

    This is especially salient for me as I am transitioning from the Program Coordinator of a busy self-help center into a legal advocate role with a domestic violence service provider. The two roles are very similar in terms of knowledge and the social service agency saw a clear need for someone with legal experience who was not necessarily a lawyer. I will be making great use of as a resource for clients.

  2. Richard, Thank you for drawing attention to the Massachusetts’ ATJ Report and the important role of human serving organizations in helping people get the information and assistance they need, when they need it, and in a format they can use to address their legal issues. At The Kresge Foundation, we believe that the integration of civil legal assistance and human services provides a more holistic and enduring approach to removing barriers to social and economic mobility.

  3. I run a project in San Francisco ( that trains and equips social service providers to help their clients get to the legal help they need. My website contains targeted referrals for caseworkers working with very low-income San Franciscans (under “referrals”), and a list of all of the legal providers in SF (under “resources”). I also do consults with caseworkers and clients to help them untangle the issues and get to the help that exists (in SF we have nearly 60 non-profit referral options, each providing specific services to a specific population). I’m excited to see the recognition of the critical role that caseworkers, as trusted resources in low-income communities, play in navigating people toward the legal services they need.

  4. Jim Greiner says:

    Hi, Richard, I’m curious as to when you think we will stop pretending that social workers, accountants, pastors, paralegals, and a large variety of other social actors are not practicing law? The line between legal information and legal advice is a conclusion, not an analytically useful distinction. In other words, we call something “providing legal information” when we want non-lawyers to be able to do it, not based on what is being done. Social workers, accountants, pastors, paralegals, and a large variety of other social actors ARE practicing law, and saying anything else is a form of deliberate self-blindness that we use so as to avoid drawing too much attention to what they are doing. The point is, these folks SHOULD be allowed to do what they are doing. One possible view/criticism of such the current insistence on maintaining this distinction: it perpetuates the myth that nothing consequential is going on in this “mere” legal information provision, and it leaves other potential entrants into the business of practicing law (e.g., librarians) gun-shy about what they can say or do. When do you think it would be a good idea to point out that this particular emperor is stark naked?

  5. Kathryn Bullon says:

    We have been training workers in social service and similar positions (sometimes referred to as “trusted intermediaries”) in Ontario for some time. These are often the first people to hear about a legal problem, especially among those who live in poverty and/or marginalization. I invite you to look at our website, and in particular our Certificate in Community Advocacy Program, And thank you for fighting the good fight, however interminable the battle may seem. Kathyn Bullon, JD (WI, 1980), M.Ad.Ed.

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