Posted by: Elizabeth Todaro on Mar 1, 2021

Journal Issue Date: March/April 2021

Journal Name: Vol. 57 No. 2

COVID-RELATED CHALLENGES

Many in the legal community are seeking solutions to ordeals we did not face a year ago. We are working in different settings, forming new collaborations and recognizing the need for an unprecedented level of flexibility. Effectively serving clients during COVID-19 has required nearly all attorneys to make shifts in how they work, and legal services organizations are no different. Some of the challenges the access to justice community is grappling with are consistent with what other attorneys and business in general are also dealing with. However, given the vulnerable, low-income and isolated client populations legal service organizations are serving, some of the barriers are more formidable.

COMMON LEGAL ISSUES DURING PANDEMIC

Legal service organizations correctly anticipated that COVID-19 would bring more cases arising from the growing financial crisis: housing, unemployment, benefits, debt and bankruptcy. Also, not unexpected is an increase in divorces, other family law issues and adult conservatorships. Some organizations also report an increase in the eligible client population, as well as overall more intakes and cases, because of unemployment, reduced hours or other financially straining circumstances that clients are experiencing. Although the access to justice community commonly deals with these types of legal issues, there is a consistent sentiment that the frequency of these issues, particularly housing, has increased in the last year, and is expected to be an ongoing crisis in 2021.

TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES

Even before COVID-19-induced isolation, utilizing technology was the norm for many common undertakings: remote work, instant communications, online shopping, entertainment and social connections. In 2020, virtual communication and reliance on tech-based workarounds became the norm for many professionals.

For those with unreliable internet or limited access to or comfort with technology, even simple tasks become overwhelming. The additional tension of navigating unfamiliar legal information under distressing circumstances can compound an individual’s feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Even beyond challenges with accessing reliable internet and equipment for virtual communication, many legal aid clients have no access to scanners or printers, and they may lack comfort with unfamiliar applications, platforms and processes. The limited access may be because of a client’s low income, their remote location or because they are a senior, have a disability or live in a residential facility. Moreover, the community resources that are best equipped to provide access and support are also severely hampered. In many counties, libraries, schools, and community and senior centers are closed or have inconsistent or limited hours and staffing.     

Frequently, legal service organizations are taking on the task of coaching clients and navigating questions that have nothing to do with their need for legal assistance, but must be addressed before the legal issues can even be discussed.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) is addressing these gaps by encouraging clients who do have the resources and feel capable to utilize the technological option, freeing up more staff time to provide support via phone or in-person to those who most need it.

“Attempts to have Zoom/Skype meetings and do remote signings often involve a lot of technological coaching on our part,” Amanda Simpson, attorney and pro bono coordinator in LAET’s Johnson City office, said. “In addition, attempting to help clients fill out forms online has sometimes presented a challenge and necessitated creative solutions like printing and sending hard copies of forms for clients to return.” Even when all parties are able to engage remotely with success, other aspects of legal support or representation suffer. For example, Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands (LAS) notes that its attorneys sometimes struggle with effectively communicating with clients during online hearings. Something that used to be as simple as leaning over and quietly sharing information or asking a question now requires swift expertise with technology, from both the attorney and the client.

UPDATE / ADAPT EXISTING PROGRAMS

In response to COVID-19, most civil legal aid programs shifted to virtual (phone or web-based) support, at least temporarily. Some clinics were able to transition smoothly and may maintain virtual elements going forward. Others had to make very specific changes in procedure to meet the needs of participants. All organizations are monitoring and evaluating how virtual services and events are serving clients, volunteers and staff. Some programs expressed concern that shifting from in-person events to a virtual model could result in decreased engagement from volunteers. Participating in a virtual clinic may require additional technology or steps, and even for volunteers with access to technology, the experience can be frustrating and less satisfying. For others, the virtual model has always been preferable, and now they may find more ways to provide pro bono service.

WILLS and POWERS OF ATTORNEY FOR SENIORS

West Tennessee Legal Services’ (WTLS) Pro Bono Coordinator Andy Cole reports that “when the pandemic hit, the Senior Law unit had to quickly adapt to guidelines for the safety of staff and the senior clients. The unit typically sees many requests for Wills and Powers of Attorneys. This demand continued during the pandemic.”

“Fortunately, [WTLS was] able to use the Governor’s Executive Orders to facilitate this signing of many of these documents,” Cole said. “However, not everyone had access to the technology to complete this remotely. The unit adjusted to the problem by having drive-thru services. The clients would provide all the documents prior to the meeting. The attorney would then call the client and walk through the documents. The client would then come to the office parking lot where they would stay in their car while the attorney and witnesses socially distanced with masks, and witnessed the signing of the documents.” 

PRO SE DIVORCE CLINIC and DOMESTIC VIOLENCE GENERAL ADVICE CLINIC

LAET has a well-established Pro Se Divorce Clinic, done as an in-person event before the pandemic. The shift to virtual clinic required additional planning, along with volunteer support. LAET compiles a list of low-income clients who are interested in filing for divorce but who don’t have access to an attorney. They have the opportunity to work with a private attorney who has prepared a form that asks all the questions clients need to be able to fill out the Pro Se Divorce forms. Once the clients have completed the forms, the private attorney will complete the client’s divorce packet and LAET sends it back to the client to have notarized and to file. For divorces that require notarization, LAET staff meet clients in the parking lot, with masks and social distance, to notarize their documents outdoors.

LAET has also delivered a general advice clinic for victims of domestic violence in a virtual environment, incorporating law students into the process. After LAET staff did initial intake, law students from University of Tennessee College of Law called the clients at a scheduled time to get factual information and to identify the relevant legal questions. Students drafted a report to assist attorneys’ preparation and to allow them to provide focused advice in a limited amount of time. These virtual clinics provided life-changing advice and assistance to domestic violence survivors, despite not being able to host in-person events.  

SUPPORTIVE SERVICES FOR VETERANS AND FAMILIES

Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS) delivers a monthly Veterans Clinic for low-income veterans and family members who are homeless or in need of stable housing. In 2020, the monthly clinic shifted to a remote model, with MALS and pro bono attorneys continuing to provide legal and housing counseling, representation in court or at administrative hearings (other than at the VA), and negotiation with landlords. The project also provides assistance with benefit applications and accessing other educational, vocational, employment, healthcare and mental health services for qualified clients.

IN-PERSON CLINICS and EVENTS

While many programs made a shift to remote services, some events have remained in-person, with significant safety protocols.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee shared information about two in-person events that it continues to participate in. First, LAET assists with the monthly Kingsport Bar Association Free Legal Clinic. The partnership is continuing to keep the event in person, but with social distancing and regular disinfecting. LAET and other sponsoring attorneys bring in disposable masks for attendees who do not have one, and social distancing is enforced in the seating throughout the room for intake and meetings. They also provide hand-sanitizer and wipes to disinfect the area and bring multiple pens that are disinfected once used.

LAET also continued its annual estate planning clinic with support from Wilson Worley PC in Kingsport. This was an in-person clinic, with all recommended precautions, including masking requirements, social distancing and sanitizing procedures. Staff prepared for the event by calling all the applicants and preparing as much of their estate planning documents as could be done over the phone. On the day of the event, a station was set up inside the conference room at Holston Terrace, the low-income apartment being served. All volunteers were masked and socially distanced from one another. Clients came one at a time to ensure they did not come in contact with one another and the space was thoroughly sanitized before and after each client.

NEW PROGRAMS IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19

While many projects made a shift to remote outreach and services, they continued to serve their client populations and address issues as they did pre-COVID-19. There has also been an opportunity for legal aid organizations to create new projects to specifically serve individuals and families impacted by COVID-19 and related issues.

Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands has developed a project that provides COVID-19-specific support, relying on volunteers to handle brief advice and representation to COVID-19 impacted clients. The Attorney for the Day (A4D) project was able to assist 50 clients in the short three-month roll- out. This project and pro bono support freed up LAS staff attorneys to take more extended service cases.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee created a Contract Attorney Program (CAP) after receiving a generous grant. This program allows LAET to engage local private attorneys to help handle COVID-19- related issues. When LAET receives a case, for example, an eviction that was spurred by COVID-19 job loss or illness, they are able to partner with the local bar to provide assistance for clients.

Memphis Area Legal Services is working with corporate partners to provide legal clinics and related assistance. The Pro Bono Partnership is spearheaded by International Paper and includes volunteers from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Baker Donelson, Butler Snow and other firms and companies.

Last fall, TVA launched the agency’s first pro bono program, “Generating Justice,” to provide free legal assistance to low-income individuals in need. TVA attorney Kendra Mansur chairs the program, which partners with several legal aid organizations and law firms to address community legal needs through virtual clinics and online portals, such as ABA Free Legal Answers.

“Attorneys and other professionals in TVA’s Office of the General Counsel have the skills that can help fill the gap to help our neighbors in need of legal services,” Mansur said.

THE DECISION TO CONTINUE TO WORK REMOTELY OR RETURN TO THE OFFICE

While there is some variation in how legal service organizations are handling staff working in the office versus remotely, all have policies in place that require basic safety protocols when physical presence in the office is required. All organizations are requiring masks when staff are in the office, cleaning of high-touch surfaces frequently, and social distancing. Some also require temperature checks upon entering and encourage staff to communicate their schedules to avoid unnecessary overlap in shared spaces.

“When the pandemic bore down on us, our organization took immediate steps to protect the health of our clients and our staff,” LAET’s Interim Executive Director Deb House said. “Our executive management invested in having all of our offices disinfected under OSHA and CDC protocols and we created home offices and worked safely together, but apart. We stayed home until midsummer. Collectively, we found new ways to communicate and interact with our clients and our colleagues through tools such as Zoom, Facetime, Skype and Teams. We helped our community learn these techniques also. The extended work-from-home safety measures were a challenge for some of our support staff. We have a tight-knit team, some of whom have worked together for many years. They miss being together and collaborating on problems; they miss having lunch together.”

To aid in their efforts to restore staffing in offices, LAET assembled a COVID Coordinator group. Each office has a designated staff person who ensures sufficient supplies of masks, disinfectant and gloves are available. The coordinator monitors their office for health protocol compliance and communicates with the director of operations.

LAET also created a staffing team to support the efficient execution of remote documents. Attorneys and paralegals from multiple grants created a system that allowed them to help execute documents for one another’s clients to ensure maximum efficiency in assisting the clients and ensure that they could minimize the number of people coming into the office at the same time.

Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands (LAS) has remained virtual since shifting to remote work in March. This shift required a significant investment in equipment and procedural updates. Among the items LAS added were 47 new computers to improve remote work capabilities and replacement of their on-premises phone system with a cloud-based VOIP to provide phone services to all staff from a desk phone, computer or smartphone application. They also installed Ring doorbells at each office for staff to communicate with office visitors and delivery services when the offices are not staffed.

CHANGES THAT ORGANIZATIONS WILL KEEP POST-COVID-19

Legal aid programs are well-known for their ability to achieve remarkable outcomes with limited resources and for implementing innovative, efficient ways to meet their clients’ needs. Despite the challenges with being forced to quickly adopt pandemic protections, the investments in equipment, staff training and developing new procedures will have lasting positive effects for organizations.

Like many organizations, the Tennessee Justice Center made the abrupt shift in March 2020 to working entirely remotely. This required them to make several changes, predominantly for their casework team. Because they serve clients statewide, the bulk of TJC casework has always been done over the phone and through email. However, they still had to make some procedural shifts. For example, TJC caseworkers transitioned to cloud-based phone numbers so that they could easily dial out to clients without using their personal cell or home numbers. While the office phone system allowed for calls to be transferred to cell/home phones, that did not solve the issue of calling out. This turned out to be a great shift because it has allowed TJC clients to text with their client advocate through the cloud-based system. This has been really helpful for sofime clients, especially those who work multiple jobs or have schedules that are not conducive to regular office hours.

TJC also developed a web-based intake form for prospective clients to use. This has also made it much easier for clients who have access to the internet or a smart phone to contact TJC for help.

Similarly, when Casa Azafrán in Nashville closed to the public in mid-March 2020, the nonprofits housed at the community center, including Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, had to pivot to remote work. For JFON, the immediate tasks included scheduling clients for virtual appointments; establishing systems for obtaining documents and signatures from clients; and providing clients with work permits, greens cards and other important documents. JFON activated features of a new on-line case management system that allows secure communication with clients and exchange copies of documents. Ten months later, JFON is still operating remotely.

“Although we have had to change the way we work,” Executive Director Tessa Lemos Del Pino said, “our entire staff remains committed to the organization’s mission and to serving clients.” 

 

Liz Todaro is the Tennessee Bar Association’s Access to Justice director. She received her law degree from the City University of New York.