By Mary Haberland, Managing Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline, and CERA Project Specialist
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced managing the Florida Senior Legal Helpline is creating a team from attorneys who work from their homes. In the beginning only one of our three team attorneys worked off-site, and she was a former colleague who returned to work part-time after relocating from Tampa to Miami. Easy! Ten years later, though, we’ve grown to a team of seven attorneys, five of whom work part-time from their homes in three different cities. Of these, four joined our helpline only seven months ago, when we doubled our staff after being awarded state funding for the first time. While all of our new hires are experienced attorneys with a Legal Services background, only one had previously provided legal advice over the telephone. We’re still learning how to effectively work together to handle an increasing number of applicants.
Because our staffing model relies on experienced attorneys, initially I was naïve about the time I would need to spend on “team.” I thought it was sufficient to create a folder of resources that team attorneys can access through Office 365, and to hold quarterly conference call meetings to discuss general updates within our organization. I continued to review and respond to each individual attorney who submitted a challenging case for review, suggesting follow-up research, advice, and services, or referring appropriate cases to partner programs. I offered those who live locally the opportunity to participate in trainings sponsored by our Tampa office or our regional partners, and to attend occasional case acceptance meetings for our program’s extended services teams. This minimalist management works well with the other helpline I supervise, a regional program that primarily serves callers under 60. However, it soon became apparent that the senior legal helpline presents additional challenges.
For example, the level of services we provide through the senior helpline is more extensive: nearly two-thirds of our callers aren’t eligible under Legal Services Corporation guidelines, yet many are still low-income. They can’t afford an attorney, but live in a community with limited Title III-B funding. With fewer options for providing extended services or representation to these seniors through their local programs, our attorneys were developing creative solutions on their own, which – in the absence of “team” – provided remedies that served only their individual clients. Additionally, the scope of the problems raised by seniors is more complex; sometimes the attorneys ask for my input about issues that are beyond my expertise. A few of the attorneys told me they find it hard to work alone, and miss case discussions. Others wanted training to become proficient in new substantive areas. Clearly, my occasional group e-mails and usual management practices weren’t meeting their need to be part of a team. So – in response to their requests and with gentle guidance from my now-assistant senior helpline manager, we’ve made the following changes:
- New attorneys now receive a 2-day orientation in our main Tampa office, which includes attending a case acceptance meeting for one of the extended services teams in the Legal Services program in which we’re based. In addition to providing context for evaluating which cases are likely to be priorities for representation, the team meetings link new team attorneys with potential mentors within our law firm who they can later e-mail with questions about substantive legal issues;
- Required monthly conference calls which replace the quarterly calls. During their monthly meetings the attorneys discuss new developments in the law, training opportunities, creative solutions for addressing common problems, and specific legal questions;
- Including helpline attorneys on the e-mails I send to experts within our nonprofit law firm when I ask for their input about a case submitted by a home-based attorney. This practice not only facilitates an exchange of opinions, but further develops the home-based attorneys relationships with attorneys on our extended services teams;
- Circulating case questions among our senior legal helpline attorney group in an electronic version of a case acceptance meeting;
- Asking for their input on new resources for clients, and for their help with improving referral connections with providers in the communities in which they live;
- Encouraging them to attend free webinars sponsored by CERA, the National Consumer Law Center, and others. Additionally, two of our partner Legal Services programs have agreed to invite helpline attorneys who live in their communities to in-house trainings;
- Traveling to Miami one or two times each year with our full-time SLH attorney, to have an in-person meeting with team attorneys who live in South Florida to discuss a wide-ranging agenda that they help to develop.
While our model doesn’t always work as planned, when we’ve achieved “team” we’re able to replicate great results, expand agency contacts, and share shortcuts that can help us move beyond legal advice, and actually resolve our client’s legal problems.