Running a Hotline is More than Answering the Phone: Does it Cost Too Much to Use Free Help?

By Keith Morris, President, Elder Law of Michigan, and Director, Center for Elder Rights Advocacy

Student InternFor the final session of the Preconference, I had the pleasure of working with Leslie Wallin, Supervising Attorney, CARPLS Legal Aid, to lead the discussion on how legal hotlines use law students and volunteers to help meet the demand for services. As you would expect, there were many different approaches and philosophies on this topic.

Leslie and I started the discussion by describing how each of our programs used volunteers and law students. Both CARPLS and the Legal Hotline for Michigan Seniors placed a value on the training of law students for future legal aid attorneys. We also both recognized the need to change the system to accommodate the good volunteers, and not try to fit them into our regular dynamics. Here are some of the questions we discussed with the participants:

  1. Who volunteers at our hotlines?
  2. Why do people volunteer at your organization?
  3. Why use volunteers?
  4. What does it cost to use volunteers?
  5. What are your recruitment and selection practices?
  6. What types of training do you do?
  7. What type of commitment do you ask from your volunteers?
  8. How do you determine if it is worth the costs to use the free help?

There were quite a few suggestions on how to make the decision of whether to use volunteers and law students. With the new ABA rule requiring law students to complete service hours before graduating, it is a perfect time to consider a partnership with a law school and utilize the law students. However, it is definitely not as easy as all that. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis, both in terms of real costs and intangible costs. Take a look at the materials from the preconference for some of the suggestions on deciding whether to use volunteers and law students, how to handle them once they are there, and how to determine if you are using your resources wisely.

A special thanks to everyone that contributed additional resources to share and also to everyone that freely shared their insights and experiences with others. It was a very uplifting day to be with colleagues that truly understand the challenges of hotlines.

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