Changing Every Wrong Door into the Right One: Reforming Legal Services Intake to Empower Clients
Written By: Jabeen Adawi
It’s recognized that people affected by poverty often have numerous overlapping legal needs and despite the proliferation of legal services, they are unable to receive full assistance. When a person is faced with a legal emergency, rarely is there an equivalent to a hospital’s emergency room wherein they receive an immediate diagnosis for their needs and subsequent assistance. In this paper, I focus on the process a person goes through to find assistance and argue that it is a burdensome, and demoralizing task of navigating varying protocols, procedures, and individuals. While these systems are well intentioned from the lawyer’s perspective, they have unintended consequences for the client. These consequences are especially significant when viewed through our poverty law goal of empowering clients.
I argue that the process to find an attorney is unintentionally riddled with invisible barriers that more closely resemble red-tape bureaucracy than the client empowerment that poverty law desires. I highlight four flaws in how legal service intakes are implemented. First, legal services organizations are a complicated web of varying agencies and providers making it challenging for a client to find the right office for their needs. Second, conflict rules, while intended to preserve zealous advocacy, often inhibit a client from finding counsel. Third, in legal services there is little transparency around why or if a case is likely to be accepted, leaving a client confused and frustrated. Fourth, a low-income client has no choice in who actually represents them unlike a client with means who can seek out a specific attorney.
I examine the consequences of these flaws in the context of client empowerment. I argue that the combination of these barriers in one process actually disempower clients and prevent them from accessing the services they need. Finally, I highlight one solution: a collaborative intake and triage model that was piloted in Washington, D.C. to service crime victims. I explore how this model addresses some of these barriers and how it may be a blueprint for much-needed legal services delivery reform.