Running a Hotline is More than Answering the Phone: Handling a Hotline Call

By Michael Walters, Legal Hotline Managing Attorney, Pro Seniors, Inc and CERA Project Specialist

Smart PhoneThe preconference at the Equal Justice Conference in Chicago included a full day of programming devoted to legal hotlines. Running a Hotline is More than Answering the Phone: A Collaborative Workshop was well attended by hotline managers and advocates throughout the United States. The sessions were highly interactive among the participants and included a lively exchange of ideas on ways to staff and operate a legal hotline.

Laurel Heer Dale, Director of ElderAccessLine® at Legal Aid of Nebraska, and I covered the topic of How Many Ways Can you Handle a Hotline Call? We discussed models, such as the traditional appointment and callback system we use at Pro Seniors, as well hotlines which answer calls with live attorneys (or non-attorney advocates) and hotlines which are using voicemail as part (or all) of their intake system. The newer models are designed to minimize situations where the client cannot be reached for a call-back. Also, answering the call by a “live” advocate eliminates the duplicative process of screening/intake vs. providing advice to the client in a separate call.

Approximately sixteen hotlines shared their intake models prior to the conference and an Excel spreadsheet compiled by Laurel is included in the materials linked above. The representative sample reveals that hotlines are evenly divided between the traditional method of scheduled callbacks vs. variations such as voicemail or “live” advice. Not surprisingly, online intake systems are becoming more popular as a supplement to intaking clients by telephone.

We discussed newer technologies such as automated callback systems, which actually put the client on the telephone line before having the client sent to an advocate. Hotline models which screen and route the client based on the substantive legal issue allow the hotline to train advocates in only a few substantive areas of the law, and are designed to reduce the long-standing problem of how to effectively train an advocate for a hotline in which the client could be calling about virtually any legal issue. Newer case management systems allow the telephone system and the case management system to be fully integrated, allowing for a more efficient analysis of call volume and use of staff time.

Technology often advances more rapidly than understanding of how new technology can be used. The sharing of information among hotline managers on ways that new technology and business models can be applied in the hotline context is a vital tool for hotlines in learning how to work more efficiently and in a more cost-effective manner. Communication among hotline advocates allows hotlines to use the best new ideas and technology in ways that best fit the clientele and volume of individual hotlines.

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