legal empowerment, non-profit, public interest law, social change

New holistic legal services program in Rhode Island

As someone who is a big proponent of a “holistic legal services model,” I was incredibly excited to hear about a program launched in 2013 with support from the Kresge Foundation. The program, the Holistic Legal Assistance Network (HLAN) is hosted within Rhode Island Legal Services, and utilizes a holistic approach to identify and address the underlying social problems preventing an individual from moving forward out of poverty.

This program implements exactly the model I have been advocating on this blog for a while. The program integrates both legal and non-legal support and strategies and provides a continuity of care across the spectrum of a client’s social and legal problems. This holistic approach allows the program to attack the root causes of poverty as opposed to simply addressing the symptoms at a surface level, and by linking to other social service organizations and partners, aims to vastly increase the client’s access to necessary services. In addition, the program continues to follow-up with clients even after specific legal and social problems are addressed.  An initial evaluation seems to reveal positive results, but I think more robust measurement of impact in this and similar models will be helpful to test assumptions and also provide a persuasive force to other legal service providers across the country.  This powerpoint is incredibly helpful and captures many of the underlying goals of a holistic program; the barriers; and how to address them.

Indeed, the presentation accurately points out two key barriers: funding for such programs, and internal culture. Funding is often a challenge, since providing holistic care requires deeper support to each client, and can be enhanced by the hiring of an in-house social worker. This would be a great place for foundations to intervene and work with legal services organizations to supplement their work. However, even without additional funding, legal services organizations can reframe their referral process to develop close connections with social service organizations in the area, enabling greater continuity of care for clients. In addition, the culture of legal organizations is often such that there is a reluctance of lawyers to become involved in clients’ non-legal issues – often because of time – but also at times because lawyers do not feel well-equipped, perhaps are uninterested in addressing such issues, or feel it is not their role. Additional training and support can enable lawyers to think more “holistically” when working with clients, even without the addition of substantial additional resources or financial support.

Regardless, I am incredibly heartened to see a legal services organization taking this on and combining the language of holistic services with community lawyering – and at the same time, to see a foundation beginning to invest in this particular model. With more measurement to prove that this does, indeed, work, more funding may also come into play as donors want to support models that they believe will succeed.

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