Running a Hotline is More than Answering the Phone: Hotline Staffing Models

By Mary Haberland, Managing Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline, and CERA Project Specialist

Legal Hotline Preconference WorkshopMargery Klausner and I facilitated an afternoon session of Running a Hotline is More than Answering the Phone: A Collaborative Workshop on hotline staffing models, “The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts.” Margery is the director of the Counsel & Advocacy Law Line (CALL), a division of Lakeshore Legal Aid in Michigan. We began by informally polling the approximately 30 participants about the staffing models they use for their hotlines. The majority of those attending used some type of “front-back” model, meaning they employ different staff to answer calls and complete client applications before forwarding the caller on for legal advice. Only three of the attending hotline managers reported staffing solely with attorneys. Fifty percent of us use law students to provide legal advice, and approximately 30% incorporate volunteers in their models. We then separated the group by tables to discuss the merits of using a separate screening unit vs. having legal advocates completing the application through advice; live calls vs. callback appointments; full-time vs. part-time employees; attorneys vs. paralegals; incorporating volunteers, emeritus attorneys, and law students; and using remote staffing. The goal wasn’t finding “the best” staffing model; most of us staff according to resources, funding, as well as technology. The value of the session was in considering the questions, and learning how we could improve our own models by incorporating ideas shared by participants in response to each new topic we considered.

Much of our discussion centered on remote staffing and how this impacts our hiring, training, and communication practices. We all agreed that except for the situation when an experienced team attorney elects to work from home, new “remote hires” need to spend some time in the office learning hotline procedures and taking calls under close supervision before they can move off-site. Is it better to hire new attorneys, those with prior but relatively brief Legal Services experience, or private attorneys who are very knowledgeable about substantive areas? Many thought that hiring hotline attorneys with Legal Services experience was desirable in terms of their expectations about the rate of pay, our clients, and their long-term commitment to the organization. Additionally, these attorneys come with knowledge about poverty law subjects seldom encountered in private practice, such as subsidized housing and complex senior benefits issues. Others thought technology experience was valuable, and were willing to train newly-licensed attorneys about substantive law if they came with more advanced technological skills. We discussed compensation during this segment and discovered that the hourly wages we pay our part-time attorneys vary widely. There was general consensus that the trade-off for relatively low pay can be a flexible schedule, payment of professional dues, providing training opportunities, and on some hotlines, allowing attorneys to maintain an outside practice of law.

We also compared our staff supervision models. All of us agreed managers should review every legal file for new hires initially, but we varied widely in our practices once our attorneys had completed a probationary period. Some programs always review every hotline file regardless of the attorney’s level of experience, and staff one or more dedicated case reviewers for their hotlines. Others release attorneys from mandatory review while continuing to provide feedback upon request for unfamiliar or complex legal issues. Similarly, we varied on whether we have written supervision policies. A few do, while others communicate policies in e-mails or conference calls. Conference calls can also be used for team meetings, although several programs require that all staff – whether working in the office or off-site – meet periodically for case reviews and other purposes. While off-site staff can lose the benefit of having “real time” discussions with their supervisors and peers, some of us use Skype for Business, Yammer, and Google Chat to provide instant messaging for “instant answers.”

Before our time ran out we talked about employee evaluations, and whether traditional evaluations were still useful. Several programs reported that they are required to do periodic evaluations by funders, while at the other extreme a few participants said that because they no longer have the ability to give merit raises, they no longer do evaluations. When evaluations are provided our methods ranged from face-to-face conferences, to written performance summaries prepared by the employee’s manager, to a ratification (or not) of an employee’s self-evaluation. We had to conclude our session before completing all of our topics, but it was a wonderful experience to see the room as full and the participants as animated for the last afternoon session as when we arrived for the preconference that morning.

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