Needs Assessment
They Don't Need to Be Expensive

An effective needs assessment provides critical input for legal aid programs, informing a broad array of strategic decisions about program management and resource deployment -- from the types of services that are provided, to case acceptance priorities, to the development and implementation of new projects and partnerships to meet changing needs in the client population.

A well-designed needs assessment will engage the full range of program stakeholders, including the client community, partner organizations, the private bar, the judiciary, government agencies, and the program's own staff and board. By using a combination of focus groups, facilitated work sessions and analysis of already-existing needs survey and population data, The Resource makes comprehensive needs assessments more affordable than ever before, bringing the insights, feedback, and direction provided by this powerful tool within reach of programs that had previously considered needs assessments to be a once-a-decade process.

During 2001-2002, three legal aid programs in Pennsylvania partnered to undertake a comprehensive legal needs assessment covering their fourteen-county service area (The three programs consisted of Neighborhood Legal Services Association, Laurel Legal Services and Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services, which collaborated in 1997 to form the Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services Consortium, one of the six regional entities emerging from the 1998 Pennsylvania statewide planning process). They engaged The Resource for Great Programs to:

  • Design a process to engage all major stakeholders in appraising the legal needs of eligible low-income people in the service area;

  • Assist the programs in collecting and analyzing the results; and

  • Facilitate conversations among the leadership and stakeholder groups to develop strategic initiatives, including a review of program priorities, for addressing the high-priority needs that were revealed.

The needs assessment was comprehensive and comprised six elements:

  1. Preliminary work session with stakeholders. To launch the process, The Resource facilitated a work session of the Public Interest Law Forum, a leadership group previously formed by the three programs, to obtain perspectives from leaders of legal services providers, law school representatives, and other members of the legal community.

  2. An analysis of service area demographic data. The Resource analyzed 1990 and 2000 Census data to produce a detailed picture of the principal demographic characteristics of the eligible client population. The"portrait" that emerged showed the target population's geographic distribution and areas of concentration, growth rate, proportions relative to the overall (non-poverty) population by county, and the distribution of special populations such as children, seniors, the disabled, and minority ethnic groups.

  3. Analysis of available survey data. To estimate the numbers and types of legal problems experienced by the eligible population, The Resource applied a statistical model based on available legal needs survey data. This approach conserved resources by avoiding the need for an expensive survey of the client population (A face-to-face or telephone survey with a scientific sample of at least 300 completed interviews would be required to produce valid estimates of the incidence of legal problems in the region. At $50-$100 per interview, this was deemed too expensive for the purposes of this study. A less expensive alternative, a mail survey, could be expected to provide a response rate of only 10-25 percent, insufficient to provide statistically valid results. Rather than spend the limited resources of the programs on client surveys, The Resource applied a statistical model based on prior needs study data to estimate the numbers and types of legal problems experienced by the programs' eligible population).

  4. Personal interviews. Two types of interviews were done:

    • Key observer telephone interviews, facilitated by The Resource, with all managing attorneys and all chairs of the programs' substantive law groups; and

    • Community partner telephone interviews, done by program staff as a follow-up to the focus group meetings (see below) with leaders in the bench, bar, business community, helping agencies, and community organizations.

  5. Focus group sessions. Structured, face-to-face focus group sessions, facilitated by managing attorneys trained by The Resource, were held in the spring and summer of 2002 in each of the counties served by the three programs. These meetings applied a standard protocol and data collection format designed by The Resource and engaged 115 community participants.

  6. Strategic planning sessions. In August 2002, two planning meetings were held to explore opportunities for developing collaborative initiatives to address the priority areas of affordable housing and "comprehensive intake." Participants included the executive directors, resource development coordinators, staff of a neighboring legal aid program, and three professional consultants with expertise in legislative fundraising, government, grant-funded project development, and strategic marketing. In early 2003, a Board planning process was undertaken by one of the three programs, with the important focus on moving forward with resource development opportunities arising from the needs assessment findings.

The needs assessment produced five findings:

  1. The legal needs of the poor far exceed the resources available to meet them. In 2002, the cases handled by the programs' lawyers and paralegals addressed only 13 percent of the legal problems estimated to occur among the more than 450,000 low-income residents of the service area. The needs assessment affirmed the critical importance of both priority-setting to ensure efficient utilization of scarce resources and aggressive resource development to enroll new funders and partners in a renewed effort to expand access to civil justice for all persons.

  2. The ongoing focus on six "emergency" legal problem areas must be maintained. Addressing the problems of domestic violence, unemployment, loss of housing, denial of disability benefits, consumer exploitation, and denial of welfare benefits had been previously identified as regional priorities in 1997 as an outcome of a strategic planning process. In the focus groups, the client community affirmed that these six critical issues continue to have devastating consequences for the families affected without immediate access to highly effective legal assistance.

  3. The client community supports full implementation of a Helpline. Focus group participants were aware of the Helpline, liked the idea, and were ready for expansion of it. They provided valuable information about the needs to be addressed through this channel and about high-priority concerns they would like to see addressed in its design and operation.

  4. There is a network of referral resources already in place upon which the programs can build. The focus group process produced a comprehensive data base of referral resources that exist in each of the counties. Participants listed the people and agencies their neighbors and colleagues currently rely upon for help and identified what an ideal referral system would look like in the future from the perspective of people who would be expected to use it.

  5. A process has been put in place for developing fundable, collaborative projects that will address high-priority community needs having a legal aid component. This process, which is in itself a priority emerging from the needs assessment, was developed and used as an integral part of the needs assessment to lay out two initial collaborative projects: (1) an affordable housing initiative, and (2) a "Comprehensive Intake" initiative. For each, potential funding sources and collaborating partners were identified. Using the needs assessment as an event for starting new conversations around client needs, the programs and their partners positioned themselves to seek funding and launch the projects. They emerged with a replicable process – a project-generating engine – they can use over and over to launch new projects in the future.

The needs assessment produced powerful tools and insights to position the programs to respond to the most urgent needs of their community and move toward Full Access to Justice. As a result of the needs assessment, these programs now have an asset – their priority statement – that promises to yield big dividends for their clients, their partners, and the low-income community in 2004 and beyond. These findings provide both the rationale and the direction for a powerful strategic effort that will expand their capacity to meet the legal needs of the target population.

Focus group participants highlighted some of the critical gaps and potential opportunities in the existing legal aid system in the region – and also indicated that the low-income community is supportive of legal aid as a resource where the low-income community can go to get effective, caring help in a crisis. Above all, the community is ready for efforts to narrow the gap between aspirations like "Equal Access to the Law" and "Full Access to Justice" and the reality they see on the ground in the low-income neighborhoods of the region.

The needs assessment revealed a critical need for more legal help over a wide spectrum of legal problems: housing, child support, jobs and transportation, health insurance, seniors problems, divorce and custody, special education, guardianship, predatory lending and many others. These needs cry out for more than simply expanding the traditional services that legal aid programs have provided in the past. They call for innovative, collaborative approaches that would expand both resources and community impact by enrolling partners such as special programs, members of the Public Interest Law Forum, local bar associations, large law firms, banks and other members of the business community, law schools, city and county governments, and foundations.

These needs provide the driving force for a new priority: Developing and launching collaborative projects based on "models that work" – successful projects operated by other legal aid programs within the region or elsewhere – and enrolling community partners and funders who will help the programs to expand resources for providing access to our justice system for all.

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