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Spotlight On: Legal Services of Northern Virginia

LSNV logo_smallHello everyone! While at home in Northern Virginia for the holidays, I was able to chat with Ronké Hughes and Raquel Colon of Legal Services of Northern Virginia (LSNV) in Fairfax, VA. Hughes works as the organization’s Intake Managing Attorney, while Colon is the Director of Development. We talked about what legal aid looks like in some of the nation’s richest counties, and what sort of tech they’re using to increase access to justice.

Coming from legal services in a very rural state like Montana (where it’s not too hard to see poverty) to the concentrated affluence of Northern Virginia, it can be difficult to see the same need. Nevertheless, as with many affluent areas, Northern Virginia’s rapid expansion has left many people behind: over 150,000 in the area are living at or below the federally-defined poverty level (FPL; see this report by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis for more). Fauquier County, for instance, saw a fifty percent rise in residents living under the FPL since the 2008 recession. Because cost of living is so high in the area, LSNV accepts applicants at up to 200 percent of the FPL - and still have to turn away a lot of needy people.

Part of LSNV’s effort to meet the need with easy access to legal help are their outreach efforts at local courthouses. The various practice groups hold events at least once a month, and often more often than that, during weekdays to conduct intake and direct visitors to pro se resources.

As far as using technology to increase access, Hughes and Colon told me that LSNV was actually one of the first organizations in Virginia to use an online intake application. LSNV is made up of two other organizations which merged three years ago; one of those organizations was already using online intake. That system became LSNV’s, and several improvements have been made since then. The online intake system is built in Kemps Case Works, so that data is pulled automatically into LSNV’s Kemps case management system (CMS).

LSNV recently won an eighteen-month Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) with which, beginning in January 2013, Hughes and Colon will work to make the online intake system compatible with A2J Author. This will allow both instant feedback for applicants (with information relevant to their legal issue), and will hopefully reduce the number of incomplete applications received by the organization. The idea is that because A2J can help people better understand what information a form is asking for, they will be less likely to misinterpret, will provide the correct information, and LSNV will have more viable applications to look over.

An area in which LSNV excels is in providing Limited English Proficiency (LEP) resources and multilingual services. Through their Interpreter Planning Partnership (IPP), LSNV is able to offer various levels of service in over thirty languages. Readily available in their offices are Spanish- and Korean-speakers, and they have access to a pool of volunteers capable of helping with everything from translation of materials to intake to full services (most of the volunteers were attorneys in their native countries). Over half of the intake staff is at least bilingual. LSNV’s reputation in this regard is such that other nonprofits frequently get in touch with them to find volunteers for help with a particular language. Being right outside of an international hub like Washington, DC provides both the need for multilingual services and the means to meet it.

Hughes and Colon were also both very enthusiastic about their Voice over IP (VoIP) call center system. LSNV implemented to the system in February 2010, then switched again in 2011, a change both were very happy with. “It’s just the best,” gushed Hughes. The center handles 2,000-2,500 calls per month with 14 intake staff (several of whom are part-time), so the VoIP system has benefitted both callers and staff. It has an automatic call back feature, so that callers don’t have to stay on hold while they wait for a turn with an intake specialist. Calls can also be monitored and tracked if a problem arises later, and the system provides LSNV with valuable data on trends in peak times of use and more.

Still in the pipeline for LSNV are a number of projects related to increased access for clients. A second 2013 TIG will focus on implementing an appointment reminder system for clients. An automated voicemail reminder will notify clients of upcoming meetings with attorneys, court dates, and lists of documents to bring with them, hopefully reducing the number of no-show appointments. The project was suggested by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), as was the software that LSNV is looking at using for the project, called Twilio. Whatever software is used should integrate easily with LSNV’s existing CMS, and Twilio has already created the necessary programming for the project.

Also, Hughes said that LSNV would eventually like to install a series of computer station “kiosks” around the area, create a mobile version of their website, and “beef up” their social media presence. All this is still in the future, though - for now, Hughes and Colon are pretty busy with tech development for two ladies with no official technology duties!

Thank you very much to Ms. Hughes and Ms. Colon for taking the time to talk with me, and best of luck with your upcoming TIGs! Happy New Year, everyone!

Liz