Legal Aid Update: Serving Clients During a Pandemic

By Jean Lastine

0321_THL-Computer-Update-150When the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in March of 2020, Central Minnesota Legal Services (CMLS) began operating as a virtual law office on March 19 after adopting protocols to protect the health and safety of CMLS staff and the people it serves.

When Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order on March 27 directing Minnesotans to stay at home and limit movements outside of their home beyond essential needs, CMLS rethought its operations as it was clear staff would be working remotely with limited presence in our physical offices for a longer time than we originally thought.

Reevaluating Needs

The CMLS culture was to work from our physical office space with clients coming in for meetings, and support staff close at hand for assistance with pleadings and case management. Most CMLS staff used desktop computers, and a few laptops were available to check out as needed for legal clinics and occasional remote work.

CMLS had purchased a few laptops at the beginning of March but it was clear when the stay-at-home order was issued that a much larger investment in technology was necessary to provide staff with the tools to work remotely for a longer period of time.

The technology needs went well beyond what CMLS had budgeted for technology expenditures in 2020. 

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) received $50 million in the first stimulus package passed by Congress on March 25, 2020, and LSC made $2.4 million available for Telework Capacity Building grants to its grantees. CMLS receives funding from the LSC, as do Anishinaabe Legal Services, Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.

The legal services community is grateful that other funders also provided support for pandemic needs, including technology. The Minnesota State Bar Foundation received two grants from the Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund for Coronavirus and re-granted the funds to civil legal aid organizations. The MSBA also contributed funds for these needs. These resources helped many legal aid providers obtain necessary technology and equipment while experiencing strained budgets and unanticipated expenses.

CMLS received a grant from LSC which allowed it to purchase hardware and software to support teleworking while promoting staff safety and the continuity of operations for clients and the program.

Virtual and Physical Office Updates

CMLS was able to purchase laptops for staff use for data security. This also maximized the use of organization-issued software which would otherwise not be available on personal devices of staff that they might use for work-related tasks. 

The laptops allowed CMLS to continue to provide quality advocacy for clients while in-person appearances were limited. CMLS purchased multiple Zoom licenses for use in court hearings and other client meetings. Printers, scanners, and mobile hotspots were also purchased. 

CMLS obtained e-signing software to allow clients to electronically sign documents from their smartphones of personal computers in a secure manner. 

These efforts provided staff with the tools to continue allowing attorneys to accept cases for extended representation and provide other services without risking the health or safety of staff or clients. 

Reconfiguring conference rooms and client meeting spaces was another adjustment CMLS and its partner Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid (MMLA) made during the last year. CMLS and MMLA are co-located at their office locations. Three conference rooms in the Minneapolis location were reconfigured into hearing rooms with enhanced technology and protective equipment to allow participants in hearings to safely be in the same space and follow social distancing protocols. 

The programs are also planning for the future as the courts and other agencies increasingly resume their work. Recently two smaller conference rooms were remodeled into a fourth larger hearing room. The programs also decided to create a temporary in-office client facilitator position to help manage office use by staff and clients as the need for more people in our offices increases. 

This position involves ensuring clients and other visitors to our offices follow our health and safety protocols, directing clients and others to their meeting space and the attorney they have come to meet, and sanitizing spaces for meetings after use.

A very important duty of the facilitator is to troubleshoot technology arising in conference/hearing rooms in connection with Legal Aid’s Information Technology staff. 

Looking Ahead

Like many other organizations, CMLS is working on what work will look like in a post-pandemic world when it is safe for more staff to return to its offices for in-person work and meetings. The time since the shutdown until now has shown that working remotely has not only kept staff safe but is an environment where staff can work productively, coming to the office and going to court as needed.

Zoom occasionally causes staff to feel fatigued, but it has also been a platform for collaborating with co-workers and office community building events. Having this platform has allowed more flexibility for meetings and has reduced the need for some travel for work functions.

Office conversations on becoming a “paperless office” are becoming a priority as we continue to assess office file maintenance and evaluate technology tools that will help staff work productively and efficiently in a remote environment.

Operating in a manner that protects our staff and clients is still our priority going forward as we continue to deal with the pandemic. Working on the balance between a virtual environment and fostering a collaborative work community with the personal connections to support each other will be a continuing discussion for legal aid programs in the year ahead.

Jean Lastine is the executive director of Central Minnesota Legal Services. The organization, with offices in Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and Willmar, assists people in 21 counties in central Minnesota. Lastine also has served on several boards, including the HCBA Board of Directors, the MSBA’s Access to Justice Committee, and the MSBA Board of Directors.

Managing Editor
Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter