County lines should be no barrier to our hopes and dreams, nor should they be to the 600,000 people living in poverty. Access to justice should depend solely on the merits of your case, not on where you live.
– Ramón Arias, 2004 Language Advice Line presentation
Rethinking intake for a regional service model
Sixteen years ago this month, in March 2004, Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal) launched the Legal Advice Line: the first legal hotline in the US to provide immediate legal advice in multiple languages and in multiple areas of the law.
The hotline was conceived as a key measure to support BayLegal’s evolution as a regional civil legal services law firm serving low-income communities throughout seven Bay Area counties. It was implemented within four years of BayLegal’s founding in the year 2000—the result of a merger between neighborhood legal service organizations throughout the Bay Area, which actualized the firm as the Bay Area’s first and only regional legal services provider. The firm was founded on the ideal that access to justice in the Bay Area should depend on the merits of someone’s case, not on the neighborhood, county, or city in which they live.
Inherent in the merger was the need to examine every aspect in which BayLegal—through a regional lens rather than a neighborhood-, city- or county-based service model—could fulfill its mission to provide the same scope and quality of legal assistance to clients throughout the Bay Area, regardless of their location, language or disability. This required an examination of the firm’s intake system.
Almost immediately, BayLegal leadership began to conceive of creating a centralized intake and advice unit, which would become the Legal Advice Line (LAL). Ramón Arias, BayLegal’s founding Executive Director, explained that the idea came about as a way to reconfigure the firm’s early intake system, which relied exclusively on the staff and resources of each local office. Thus, it was limited in scope in a number of areas critical to providing high-quality legal assistance. For instance, if a Vietnamese-speaking person with a domestic violence problem called a BayLegal office on a Tuesday afternoon, the scope of assistance they might receive would depend on the language capacity, expertise, and availability of staff in that local office on that particular afternoon.
Ramón explained that the merger wasn’t just about “expanding resources; it expanded the way we looked at what we do. If you were a Vietnamese speaker, good luck. Or if your problem was not served by the office, good luck. So we created a new legal intake system. At that time there were only three other [legal advice hotlines] in the country. The vision behind it was… that no matter where you were in the Bay Area, you got immediate advice from a lawyer. We are one of the few to this day with a lawyer answering the phone.”
Ramón explained that, apart from having the ability to provide legal advice, having an attorney determine financial eligibility during the initial phone screening often provides a shortcut to understanding the root of the caller’s problem because, for low-income clients, legal problems are often related to their source of income. “By calling the LAL, a potential client finds out, in their own language, whether their legal problem is one BayLegal can handle, they receive immediate advice on their particular problem, and get an appointment at a local office right then and there if the problem requires further assistance,” he said. “Before a client arrives for their scheduled appointment, the lawyer in the local office receives all of the information the LAL gathered on the client’s problem and the advice she was given. The client no longer has to repeat her story and the lawyer can focus on what needs to be done.”
“It was a job that had never been done before…”
The story behind the LAL’s creation, as with many stories of our founding, is one of collaboration, creativity and determination borne from a time of institutional change. Many people played a role in ensuring the LAL’s success including, significantly, Claudia Colindres Johnson, the LAL’s first Managing Attorney.
Claudia remembers her work to establish the LAL with a sense of disbelief at the enormity of the task. “It was a job that had never been done before, trying to do something almost impossible,” she said. “My charge was to hire five advocates, train them in four areas of law, purchase and design a modern phone system, develop working relationships with each of the local offices, centralize intake, and overcome all resistance to the LAL. I had to have the LAL working in eight weeks from my hire date!”
“The first eight weeks were intense,” she recalled. “When I first walked into the LAL office, all I had were pencils and laptops, no staff. I worked with [former Chief Operation Officer] Rigo Lopez to set up the LAL, and [former Director of Law and Technology] Tony White and I went out to see phone systems from different vendors. We went to bank call centers, insurance companies, et cetera, and considered many options.”
“He was instrumental in getting us our case management system, and we reprogrammed it to have it set up for LAL. Tony figured out how to make BayLegal one [firm] through technology. He put transmission lines between San Francisco and Alameda for data.” Without those transmission lines, Claudia explained, BayLegal would not have had the technological infrastructure to operate the LAL.
From a staffing angle, one of the key decisions Claudia made was to bring on board a new team of multilingual legal professionals to operate the LAL: “From the get-go I wanted the LAL to serve the top five languages in the Bay Area. Thus the phone system and all of its queues had to be available in those languages. And the new staff had to be bilingual or trilingual. I wanted to have a team that wanted to be part of a new unit and who were willing to let go of prior assumptions about BayLegal and were willing to support a new vision of legal services regardless of area or location,” she said. In the end, a good LAL advocate, she explained, had to have “good people skills, be a good listener and able to mentally transition and give their full attention to somebody, and then change to someone completely different. You have to be someone who can roll with change.”
Claudia also made key decisions around the LAL’s procedure and purpose: “With a lot of hotlines, you call and they do the eligibility screening. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted whoever did the advice and counsel to set up the relationship with the client. I wanted people to know that from the get-go they were dealing with a highly trained, competent person. And sometimes people would mention something [over the phone] that had an impact on a case. So it was important to have a holistic approach to the people who called, and to be able to connect one thing to the other.”
The holistic approach required establishing case acceptance guidelines, creating tools for quickly assessing legal matters, providing practical advice to callers, understanding the resources available through the vast network of community partners throughout the Bay Area, and closely monitoring every call that came in. Under Claudia’s management, the LAL became a holistic service that helped people at times of crisis, advised callers on their legal problems and how to exercise their options, and connected callers with other community providers that might be better suited to help with a specific aspect of their situation. It also became a way to spot patterns of injustice in the Bay Area, and to bolster cases through litigation.
For example, Claudia remembers that, through the LAL, BayLegal was able to build an anti-eviction case against an Oakland housing complex after dozens of Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking tenants called the hotline from the same address, asking for housing assistance. She would make sure that Bob Capistrano, then BayLegal’s Senior Litigation Counsel, knew about what emerging needs were being identified through by the LAL. She also reflected that, through the hotline, landmark cases like Nakamura v. Parker were spotted—a seminal case in family law, holding that a trial court abused its discretion in failing to hold a hearing before denying an application for a temporary restraining order, despite our client’s numerous allegations of physical and emotional abuse.
Claudia drew on Tony’s influence to make disciplined decisions based on data. “That’s what Ramón and I wanted—to have a unified culture that put the interests of the clients first, based on evidence. We wanted to use the data from LAL to create impact for the clients. We wanted it to answer, Where are the unmet needs? Where do we not have capacity? We didn’t want it to be disconnected from the practice of law.”
The statistical results of the LAL were astounding from the beginning. In less than a year, it provided counsel and advice to 6,000 people. The number of calls rose from approximately 35 to more than 150 per day, while the number of clients receiving counsel and advice and referrals increased by over 50%.
Modernization and mobilization of the LAL
In 2008, Claudia moved to the East Coast with her family, where she now leads the Law Help Interactive project at Pro Bono Net, a national online platform for legal document assembly. Haydée Alfonso, now BayLegal’s General Counsel and Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, took over the reins and increased the LAL’s capacity to help people navigate the healthcare system—a service expansion that proved especially critical at the advent of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
In 2017, the LAL was moved over to a cloud-based call-center system, allowing BayLegal advocates to answer calls from anywhere as long as they have an internet connection and access to a smartphone or computer. The switch to the cloud was the result of extensive forethought and planning, to prepare the firm for response to any natural disaster or crisis that could preclude community members from accessing vital information from our offices. This meant that we were prepared, in 2017 and 2018 for instance, to establish a dedicated Disaster Response Line as part of the LAL in order to provide counsel and advice to community members who had been impacted by the wildfire in 2017 that swept through the North Bay.
The LAL’s ability to reach people in need across our Bay Area communities has never been more vital than it is today. In this time of public health and economic crisis, when we have closed our physical offices to clients and staff in response to the evolving public health concerns around COVID-19, the LAL has been able to continue its operations remotely, serving as a lifeline to a community in crisis.
Barbara Texidor, our current LAL Managing Attorney, reported that, given the strength of the LAL’s operational infrastructure, BayLegal is “likely the most accessible legal service provider in the Bay Area, as many other nonprofits have closed their doors and do not have the technical capacity to triage requests for services or take phone calls. We are still providing advice and counsel over the phone, still representing clients, and still doing hearings. Operations haven’t changed that much.” She and her team are currently working to expand capacity on the LAL in order to create virtual legal clinics across all BayLegal practice areas.
It is a testament to the work of Claudia and her colleagues, nearly sixteen years ago, that our staff is able to continue to provide services to clients across all practice areas in this time of unprecedented threat to the safety and stability of our communities. And, as Barbara notes, it is a testament to the success of BayLegal’s regional model that, when members of our community call for assistance, they do not identify where they are calling from: they identify the problem they are facing, in whatever language they speak, and receive a response in that language, in real time.
For the foreseeable future, the LAL will be a primary mode of connecting to people in need across the Bay Area. But no matter what working conditions we find ourselves in, achieving client access to services is absolutely essential to our work.
In a speech commemorating the birth of the LAL in 2004, Ramón presciently noted that “access is critical” for our clients. “That’s where it all begins. Access is the gateway to an effective delivery system.”