In 2020, the number of people in the United States living below the poverty line increased for the first time in five years. The 1% point increase equates to an additional 3.3 million Americans struggling to get by, according to the U.S Census Bureau. In the same time frame, the number of Americans working full-time, year round jobs declined by approximately 13.7 million.
This isn’t news to anyone working in legal aid. Legal aid organizations around the country are seeing dramatic increases in the number of people requesting assistance. A Legal Services Corporation survey released in July of 2020 found that “94% of grantees surveyed said that they are seeing clients who are newly eligible for LSC-funded legal aid. On average, grantees are reporting a 17.9% increase in the number of eligible clients due to the pandemic.” And that’s just LSC grantees.
These increases put additional pressure on a system that already couldn’t serve many eligible clients due to lack of resources. In terms of real dollars, funding for legal aid has not kept pace with need and has, in fact, declined dramatically since 1980. Making matters worse, experts predict that IOLTA funding (Interest on Lawyer’s Trust Accounts) and State Filing Fees, which are a significant source of state funding for many legal aid organizations declined dramatically in 2020, a trend which is not expected to reverse any time soon. In a June 7, 2020 article for Law 360, author Jack Karp states “The state organizations responsible for helping fund civil legal aid knew the coronavirus would take a bite out of their budgets, but a new survey shows just how large that bite may be, with the programs saying they expect a combined revenue decline of at least $157.4 million compared with last year.”
In addition to more clients and less funding, legal aid staff can attest that the COVID 19 public health pandemic was taxing in other ways as well. Many of our organizations struggled to shift quickly to remote work, both because many organizations did not have the technology systems to support their staff working from home and because many client service processes had historically been designed to support in office work. Mind sets and processes needed to shift quickly.
Clients now have additional access challenges. Most clients did not have reliable access to the technology needed to function effectively in this new environment and videoconferencing made it more difficult for clients with limited English proficiency to fully participate. Legal aid staff were also dealing with their own concerns for their personal safety and other stressors brought on by the pandemic.
At this point, you’re probably thinking none of this is news and wondering what this has to do with Business Process Improvement. So I’ll get to the point. With more clients and less revenue, already stretched legal aid programs will need to be prepared to make some changes to continue to fulfill their missions. Despite the challenges, there is hope. The things that made 2020 and 2021 difficult have shown that legal aid staff will rise to any challenge in service to clients. Incredibly innovative changes were made during the past two years that demonstrate Legal aid’s willingness to change, adapt and move forward. This is the same mindset that is needed to make thoughtful process changes through Business Process Improvement (BPI). BPI can and should help legal aid organizations create capacity and efficiencies to help address the increased legal needs of more clients. You have already been changing the way you do things, so now is the perfect time to build on that momentum and think more systematically about improving the systems and processes that support the work you do every day.
Over time, even what were once well designed processes can degrade. In addition, “quick fixes” have been applied to address short term needs, individuals develop shortcuts that are then passed to new staff, new requirements or new tools have been introduced, and sometimes staff just keep doing tasks because “it’s always been done that way.” Sometimes processes were designed quickly to address short term problems, like moving to remote work during the pandemic, without the time to give careful consideration to what might be the best solution for all parties. Nobody intentionally designs a bad process, but many people will just accept bad or degraded processes without asking themselves why tasks are done the way they are. BPI isn’t complicated or difficult, but it does take time and effort. Using proven BPI methods gives teams the tools and methods they need to take a structured approach to asking the right questions to analyze processes and find better ways.
Using BPI frameworks can help teams identify opportunities for improvement by bringing to light “waste”. “Waste” in the BPI context is anything that creates bottlenecks or roadblocks, uses resources without producing equivalent value, or fails to use the time and talents of staff in a way that maximizes the results for clients. Once these things are identified BPI tools help teams to thoughtfully design a better way, including eliminating unnecessary steps, identifying opportunities for automation or other technology assisted solutions, and ensuring that staff are putting their unique talents to work in the best possible way to serve clients.
Here’s a real life example. Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMO) recently completed a BPI project using Technology Innovation Project funding from Legal Services Corporation. LAWMO knew that their intake process was inefficient and focused their BPI efforts on finding a better way to staff the intake phone lines and configuring their phone system to meet the new staffing model. They hoped to reduce hold times, call transfers and missed calls, increase intake capacity and improve the intake experience for clients and staff alike. LAWMO staff worked with a BPI consultant to map their processes, identify opportunities for improvement, and create an implementation plan. The outcome of their efforts was a system that allowed them to reduce client hold times, reduce client transfers and increase client satisfaction. As a bonus, they also identified a way to give clients an opportunity to provide real time feedback on their intake experience through an easy text survey.
Silya Shaw, Deputy Director at LAWMO, had this to say about the experience:
“We knew from staff and client feedback that we had an issue with efficiency at reception and intake. Our BPI consultants challenged us to draw a picture of accessing our office from a client's perspective. The map was not pretty. Starting with obvious roadblocks and frustrations--both for our own staff and for clients--we got into a mindset of change. From there, we used our process maps, real-time feedback, and, quite frankly, some trial and error, to test various changes. As a result, our initial intake process is easy for clients, they have no issues calling our office, and we're shifting the BPI process to the next step in our case processing. I don't think we could have made these changes, and certainly not so quickly, without BPI consultants and methodologies.”
Every legal aid organization has multiple processes that would benefit from that type of effort. So why don’t more firms undertake BPI? The most common answer is that we don’t have time or don’t have the resources. Everyone is already too busy with their daily tasks and that increase in cases and clients we mentioned earlier, oh, and figuring out how this new and ever changing work environment will function. But those are exactly the reasons that firms should dedicate the time, effort, and resources to BPI and now is a great time to do it.
Before those new processes for paperless systems, remote or remote working and other solutions put into place during the pandemic become ingrained processes, spend the time to design (or redesign) the system thoughtfully. Most people improved or learned new technical skills while working in a remote environment. Take advantage of those new found skills and willingness to accept change and assess whether your processes would benefit from a new configuration and, quite possibly, a new technology solution. This is a unique moment in history. Forward thinking legal aid organizations will seize the day and invest in assessing and improving their internal operations to serve more clients better.
Interested in starting a PBI effort, but not sure how? Check out legalaidprocess.org for guidance, tips, and tools.