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Civil Legal Needs Assessment: "Why bother?"

At a recent national conference, funders at a roundtable discussion regarding civil legal needs assessment reached ready agreement that such studies tend to arrive at the same well-documented finding: large numbers of legal needs are going unmet and the gap in achieving full access is growing. So the funders wondered aloud: why do funders, and their legal aid program grantees, bother with needs assessment at all?

Good question. Beyond meeting the requirements and guidelines of the Legal Services Corporation and the American Bar Association, do legal needs assessments add value? And if so, how can you prove it?

Enter Rob Brenner.  

Mr. Brenner is executive director of Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services. He has directed the rural, four-county program just south of Pittsburgh - and bordering Appalachia - since, well, let's just say Jimmy Carter was more than just a peanut farmer and Barack Obama was a low-profile Hawaiian kid. Mr. Brenner knows legal aid, and he knows a good, old-fashioned bureaucratic paper shuffle when he sees it.

So does Mr. Brenner think that a legal needs assessment is more than just an exercise in satisfying LSC's requirement to conduct one at least every five years, as a basis for revising a program's case-acceptance guidelines and priority statement?

Show me the money.

"My experience with needs assessments is that they pay for themselves many times over," Mr. Brenner said. "A program has to be entrepreneurial or your effectiveness will fade. There's a continual need for new partners, new resources, and a sharpened focus. And that's what a well-conceived legal needs study can help facilitate.

"Otherwise you're an emergency room: You take what's coming in the door," he continued. "Most programs do that, or are led by what the staff prefers to do."

As part of a broader coalition, Mr. Brenner's program has engaged The Resource to guide the process of carrying out two legal needs assessments since 2003, with The Resource helping to design the process and analyze the results, providing a crucial substantive and analytical foundation from which the program could formulate, develop and implement tangible innovative initiatives that have significantly increased program funding.

Quantitatively, Mr. Brenner's program since 2003 has increased its revenues - currently amounting to $1 million/year (one-third of the total funding of the program) - and has significantly increased diversification of its funding streams. New-and-improved projects supported by the additional funds encompass fair housing, emergency shelter, domestic violence, technology, and youth and children.

How can a report be so powerful?

Mr. Brenner said that a key to a successful legal needs assessment is to engage staff and motivate them by focusing on the outcomes - not another report collecting dust on the shelf, but a lively process resulting in:

. Less dependence on unpredictable state funding

. Providing crucial data and analysis from which new projects that target a diversity of emerging and evolving needs will be developed

. More low-income people with access to justice

Central to Mr. Brenner's approach has been using a legal needs assessment to engage community stakeholders in focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and surveys designed not only to collect feedback about the entrenched and evolving legal needs in the service area, but also to educate the community's leaders about who Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services is and what it does. In other words, the process becomes a hybrid of measuring need, networking, and marketing.

With a slew of data and feedback in hand, Mr. Brenner and The Resource compared the percentage of revenues spent on priority problems versus the percentage of need measured. Housing was an area that emerged as underserved, as did the legal needs of children and youth.

"We used the results as a motivator and stimulus for creativity," Mr. Brenner said. "We faced the choice together of either dividing the current revenue pie differently or making the pie bigger."

The program opted for "bigger." He and his staff recruited some of the focus group participants to supply letters of support, serve as co-applicants for a variety of grants, and provide feedback on whom to approach for funds. And they leveraged the results of their study to build case statements in their applications, demonstrating rigor and a dedication to meeting needs that were brought into sharper relief.

Internal needs too.

Seeking to reshape society, though, as Mr. Brenner cautions, also requires a willingness to recast your own internal operations. For instance, Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services' success in attracting new partners and funds, including some support not restricted by LSC guidelines, challenged his program to realign its staffing, foster new relationships with funders and community stakeholders, and serve new clients in corners of the service area not previously reached. That's a lot of "new" for any organization to integrate while focused on day-to-day intake.

"The bottom line is that it's a fair amount of work that challenges your program to move out of its comfort zone, " Mr. Brenner said. "You have to want to do it. But consider the alternative: needs are growing, resources are getting tighter, and no one's coming to bail us out."

The Major Steps in a Legal Needs Assessment
  1. Design a process to engage major stakeholders in appraising the legal needs of eligible low-income people in your service area;

  2. Inventory the skill sets of your staff and board in order to assign responsibility for various aspects of the needs assessment and consider whether you will need additional volunteer or contracted help;

  3. Develop the tools or instruments you will need to collect meaningful data and feedback, including focus group recording forms, surveys (by mail, telephone, and/or in-person), interview sheets, and the like;

  4. Collect, analyze, and convey the results, conducting focus groups, surveys, and interviews, as needed. A report, fact sheets, and a PowerPoint presentation are useful products for communicating the results; and

  5. Facilitate conversations among stakeholders to review program priorities and develop strategic initiatives for addressing the high-priority needs that are revealed. This is a vital step many programs skip, but without it, your legal needs assessment likely will become one more report collecting dust on a shelf.

Legal Needs Assessment at the 2009 NLADA Conference

The Resource presented a workshop on this topic at the November 2009 NLADA Annual Conference in Denver, entitled Legal Needs Assessment...Great Ideas for Conducting an Assessment & Actually Using the Results. Our co-presenter was Gai Lorenzen, Managing Attorney, Legal Action of Wisconsin.

For copies of materials presented in this session, click on the following links:
  • PowerPoint slides used in our presentation: [click here]

  • A sample report from a legal needs assessment we produced for a regional legal aid program in New Jersey: [click here]

  • A sample report from a legal needs assessment we produced for Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services: [click here]

About The Resource for Great Programs

Now in our 26th year, The Resource for Great Programs is a consulting firm based in Michigan that assists civil legal aid programs and their funders across the nation.

Our services concentrate on points of leverage in our client organizations where small-dollar investments can deliver big gains in impact.

Our president Ken Smith, our IOLTA Project Manager Kelly Thayer, our Information Services Project Manager Kathy Garwold and the remainder of our staff are experts in data analysis, policy and demographic research, program evaluation, and leadership disciplines, supported by our main office in Traverse City, Michigan. In addition, we can extend our reach as needed via a growing network of other firms and consultants with whom we collaborate as opportunities arise for producing extraordinary outcomes for our clients.


The Resource's Staff, led by Ken Smith & Kelly Thayer, would be pleased to answer your questions and help your program increase revenues. Contact us today!

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