Law Students as Hotline Advocates? It Can Really Work!

by Keith L. Morris

It was almost 14 years ago when I started at the Legal Hotline for Michigan Seniors as a volunteer.  I recall my frustration with the office manager because she wouldn’t even allow me to answer the phone. After all, I had just made it through a year of law school, so I knew everything about everything, right?

Since that time, I have watched law students and volunteers play many important roles in the success and growth of Elder Law of Michigan, the non-profit that houses the legal hotline and several other programs.  Law students were our technical support staff.  The intake unit was comprised mostly of law students on the work-study program for several years.  We had one of the first brief services units, and all of the case work was done by law students.  Many of the legal publications we have today were written or updated by law students.  But, the holy grail for law students was still out of reach; law students were not allowed to provide initial direct service to the hotline clients.  It was just too big of a risk.

Then, funding cuts entered the equation.  Nothing was sacred.  We examined every possible way to keep costs down and to raise revenue.  With the job market suffering, we had more new lawyers come to volunteer while job hunting.  We also had more law students want to intern with us to build their resume and to gain experience.  This pool of volunteers was wonderful, but brought new problems like increased training costs and increased supervision costs, not to mention the need for places for people to sit and adequate computers to use.  We needed to figure out what the right distribution of staff resources should be:  provide services vs supervise and train volunteers. Factor into that complex equation the facts that we needed help immediately to meet the growing demand for our services  and that many of these volunteers would be with us on a short-term basis, taking with them all of the training we provided.  Is this a perfect college exam question?  Would it be a break-even analysis or linear regression?

In the summer of 2013, with the help of our Americorps VISTA volunteer coordinator, we decided that we had to at least examine the possibility of using our legal interns to provide legal advice on the hotline.  We began a pilot program where we exercised the rule in our state that allowed law students and graduates within one year of graduating to practice law under the supervision of an attorney.  Our goal was to determine if it was practical to have law students directly assist clients on the hotline, with a staff attorney approving any advice given.

We started by researching what other legal hotlines have done in this area.  After weeks of research, we determined that a limited program that allowed law students and recent graduates to provide legal advice through the legal hotline would be a practical addition to the staff and volunteer attorneys that were currently providing advice.  We monitored all attributable costs that we could and looked at each aspect of the process to determine ways that we could structure a system to utilize these resources.

We use an appointment call-back system to make sure that a caller gets to a live person relatively quickly.  Because of our various programs, legal and nonlegal, we have an intake unit that handles almost all incoming calls.  The caller is screened for eligibility and then scheduled with an advocate for a callback during a window of time, for example, Friday morning between 9am and noon.  Staff attorneys, and most of our volunteer attorneys, handle between four and five clients during the three hour time period.

For the law student project, the students received two cases during the appointment period.  Intake staff would determine if the caller is calling about a legal problem that is debt/consumer related.  Then, intake would ask the client if they were willing to speak with a law student/recent graduate who would be working under the supervision of an attorney.  Only once or twice have we had someone decline.  When the advocate calls the client, the first thing that is discussed is that the advocate is not an attorney, but is providing this legal assistance under the supervision of an attorney.  And if at any time, the client would prefer to speak with an attorney, then the advocate can set up an appointment if an attorney is not readily available.

I recognize that this is not a viable option for some hotlines. I also know that several of the best legal hotline managers have very strong opinions about using law students and volunteers for hotline work.   Here are some key points that we found were instrumental to this program working at our legal hotline:

  1. The law students had to work during one of the two times we set up specifically for this project.
  2. The types of cases that the law students handle must be limited to only one or two substantive areas of law.
  3. There must be immediate resources for the student to access when talking with the clients.
  4. Training must be comprehensive, detailed, and ongoing.
  5. Supervision must be constant and feedback immediate.

One of the biggest costs for using law students on the hotline is the increased supervision required.  An attorney had to work with each law student to make sure that all of the relevant facts had been discovered, that the client was receiving correct advice in a way that was understandable, that the law student was able to recognize additional issues and know how to deal with them, and that the procedures were followed to record case notes, etc.  We designed our project to maximize our staff attorneys’ time supervising law students.

First, we set aside two blocks of time during which all law student work on the hotline must occur.  We already used appointment blocks of 9am to noon and 1pm to 4pm for all of our appointments.  We selected one morning block and one afternoon block that would allow all the law students participating in this project to work on the hotline.  If a law student was not able to work during one of these times, they were not allowed to participate in the project.  This allowed us to have at least three law students working during each shift.  Even with each student scheduled only two cases during the three hour period, that equated to more cases being handled by the staff attorney during that same period than if he or she were handling clients.  (Each of our staff attorneys handle an average of five clients during a three hour period.)

???????????????????????????????????????Second, we limited the types of cases that the law students would be handling to consumer/ debt-related cases, excluding bankruptcy.  These types of cases make up around 20% of our cases and an analysis of the problems showed that many of them were directly related to debt collection, garnishments, and being sued for debts.  (Even though many seniors called saying that they needed bankruptcy, that was generally not the case.)  The relevant law for these cases was pretty straight-forward, so with the proper training and tools, the law students were able to handle many of the cases. (We were able to accomplish this triaging of cases because all of our calls were screened through our intake unit, who could identify appropriate cases rather quickly.)  Focusing on one area of law that comprised a large number of our cases allowed law students to build on the knowledge they already had.  Additionally, since many worked between 10 and 20 hours a week, limiting the areas of law made it easier for them to gain a level of comfort.

Third, the law student needed access to immediate resources while working with the client.  Regardless of how well they knew the law, when actually working with clients, it is easier to have a resource to help guide them through the questions.  We prepared a list of questions that the law student had to get the answer to before talking with the attorney regarding the advice.  This prevented most situations where the law student didn’t have all of the relevant information and would have to call the client back to ask.  We use dual monitors so that the legal hotline advocates can have the case management system on one screen and access to other resources on the other screen.  Other resources that we provide would be things like referral lists, brochures, etc.

These questions also helped identify other related legal issues that perhaps the law student might not have recognized.  If there was another legal issue beyond the scope of the consumer/debt law, then either the supervising attorney would talk with the client to address the other issues or the law student would address the legal problem that they could and then schedule another appointment with an attorney to address these other issues.

Fourth, the training had to be comprehensive and ongoing.  The training included not only substantive law, but also training on working with seniors, providing legal advice by phone.  Additional topics included the resources available for referral and how to use our case management system.  Using some simple technology, we created several recorded presentations that covered the basics of the relevant law, and the process of handling the case.  Additionally, we utilized the webinars on legalhotlines.org for training.  Finally, the training included some role playing and allowing the students to listen in on calls handled by attorneys.  The goal was to make sure that the law students had a realistic picture of what it was like to work with an actual client who was upset and perhaps even confused.  These were things that you never learned in law school!

The frequency of the training is another factor to consider when examining costs.  We determined that we needed a minimum of three participants in the training program as it was structured in order for it to be an efficient use of the staff attorney’s time.  Less than that would result in a net loss when factoring in salaries, etc.  For a while, we had a training monthly to handle the influx of volunteers.  Now, we are on a schedule of three times a year.

The training has to be ongoing.  While the law student is working with us, we have them participate in weekly meetings to review cases and discuss concerns.

????????????????????????????????????????Fifth, the supervision must be constant.  It was imperative that the supervising attorney for the shift be physically present nearby to listen and observe.  The attorney would often be doing other work like case notes review, but he or she was always observing the law students for any signs of distress or concern.  Observing facial expressions and body language were often as helpful as monitoring the calls.  If the law student had a concern or when the law student finished gathering the information from the client to assess the legal problem, the supervisor was close by to respond.  This minimized any frustrations and also allowed for faster client service.  We found that we needed to stagger the start times for the law students during that scheduled shift so that they weren’t all finishing with their calls at the same time and having to wait for the supervisor to get to them.

Additionally, the supervising attorney for the shift would meet with the law student at the end of their shift for 15 minutes or so to go over the cases handled that day.  This review at the end of the shift proved to be one of the most valuable training tools because it provided immediate and specific feedback that the law student could relate to and process.  Waiting until the next time the law student was in often proved to be too late for the learning to occur because of the remoteness in time to the actual event.

Since that study in the summer 2013, we have continued our use of law students and recent graduates.  We have found that those that worked on the hotline more than one day a week got bored with just doing the consumer/debt cases.  We have expanded to include housing cases and estate planning cases.  These three areas comprise around 60% of our total cases.

As I stated in the beginning, this program isn’t right for every hotline.  Our staff attorneys thoroughly enjoy (most days) working with these soon-to-be lawyers and helping them transition to looking for practical solutions. We are continuously adding new resources, tweaking our training and feedback, and refining the job description for the position.  While this project was developed out of financial need, it has turned out to be a great program that we hope to continue.

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