How Lawyers Can Increase Access to Legal Services

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Access to legal services

For many people, access to legal services is out of reach. This can make the difference between having a job and a home, or experiencing homelessness for long stretches of time—sometimes over an issue that’s not even complicated to fix.

But lawyers can make a difference. To learn more about how, we spoke to Leslie Ginzel at the 2019 Clio Cloud Conference. Now the Chief of Holistic Services at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, Leslie was formerly the Program Director for Beacon Law, a civil legal aid program in downtown Houston that supports people who are experiencing homelessness by addressing barriers to employment, housing, health care, and more. She’s passionate about optimizing the law and delivery systems for legal services to ensure that everyone gets the support and dignity they deserve.

Teresa:

What inspires you to do what you do? Is there a specific story or experience you can share?

Leslie Ginzel:

Oh, I can think of a couple. So, I started doing this in law school. A Dean at my Law School knew that this organization was growing, and I started interning there in escaping the real estate law world. My first client that I worked with was a young man who was working as a subcontractor on some construction work, and the general contractor stiffed him. He was homeless and he had his tools, and he was hoping for that payday to put down money on rent on an apartment. The general contractor just disappeared, and so we were able to step in and write a demand letter to the homeowner about a mechanics lien, because they were required to pay their subs, and they didn’t know about this. And so, it all ended up getting worked out, and he got his money and was able to move forward. But he was literally a case where the person who didn’t have any resources and couldn’t hire an attorney came to a homeless shelter intake and was able to get services, get some advocacy, and get some strength behind his back so that he could move forward—and it worked out really well. And so, that got me hooked on ways that we can help people just with the resources they need.

Teresa:

Wow. The situation you described, that could happen to anybody.

Leslie Ginzel:

Literally. And that’s the thing that’s unbelievable. The vast majority of our clients—when we’re meeting them in a homeless shelter—they’re in a state of shock, because they never realized that they could be in this place, but it happened so quickly with a layoff, a sickness, a family illness, some catastrophic event, or just a day-to-day life event, which can destabilize your entire world. And then, when you’re at your worst place, you’re putting pieces together and trying to access employment and housing and all these different things, and it’s so hard without financial resources. And everybody needs some support and legal counsel and advocacy every once in a while. For most of our clients, it’s just when they’re at their lowest point that we’re trying to help them get back on their feet.

Teresa:

So, what other big misconceptions do you hear about the clients that you help and the type of service that they might need?

Leslie Ginzel:

So, the vast majority of our clients are people who have experienced some kind of temporary homelessness. The big misinformation out there is that people are homeless because they want to be. The vast majority of our clients want to work, want to be self-sufficient, and want to support themselves. They don’t want a handout, but they’re put into a place where you’re forced to take handouts. 

I’ve had so many clients who waited to sign up for our services because they didn’t think they needed charity because they’ve given to charity, and it’s like, “No, everybody needs some support at a different time,” and it’s how you package it and help people engage that matters. But more than anything, all of our clients want to be self-sufficient and they want to support themselves. And whatever we can do to help them get back in the driver’s seat so that they can do that is really huge.

Teresa:

So, is a lot of the work you do reacting when people find themselves in that situation, or do you do a lot of proactive work as well?

Leslie Ginzel:

A little bit of both. It really just depends. Most of our clients we’re capturing where we have to be reactive, and not so proactive. So, a lot of our clients come to us because they’ve been living in poverty and holding it together. But something happens, they fall off, they get evicted, they lose a job, and now they are trying to access the workforce or housing. And they have issues on their driver’s license, for example, with old tickets that they couldn’t afford to pay then that they can’t afford to pay now—but now it’s the key factor on whether or not they can get a license and apply for new employment.

And so, having access to legal resources to advocate to get fines and fees waived, things like that, is huge. And people don’t have access to those tools usually. They don’t have the time because they’re juggling so many things. The sad thing is whenever you realize when we’ve done a lot of our analyzing our clients and data, single mothers have the hardest time completing casework because they’re pulled in so many different directions and need so much help. I feel like any little bit of advocacy there can go so much further in terms of that family stability. 

Teresa:

What do you see the emotional impact is on people of not having a safety net and suddenly finding themselves in this state of shock?

Leslie Ginzel:

That’s the thing. We talk about trauma-informed care through and through, because all of our clients are in a state of trauma, period. Whatever brought you to a homeless shelter is guaranteed to be some sort of traumatic experience, and you’re not processing things in a normal way. You’re not able to logically schedule your day in the way that you would expect under normal circumstances. And so, you have to handle your clients in a different way. There’s a lot of customer service-driven aspects to that, but that can probably be the most difficult part—helping our clients, when they’re under so much weight and have so many things that are competing for their interests or for their current attention, and it can get difficult. 

Teresa:

Can you tell me more about what you mean by trauma-informed care?

Leslie Ginzel:

So, trauma-informed care, it’s a social work principle, and a lot of people are really gravitating toward it. It’s really understanding when your clients are in a state of trauma. So, in my mind, I tie it to the bail reform situation that’s going on. So, most people who’ve pled guilty to a low-level misdemeanor offense because they couldn’t post a bond, they did that in a state of trauma because all they were thinking about is, “I had to get out of jail today or I’m going to lose my job, my house, and my kids. I can’t afford that $500-to-however-many-thousand-dollar bond. They’re telling me if I sign this piece of paper I’m walking out today.” But they’re not in a place to think through the legal implications of that for the rest of their life.

They’re in a state of trauma thinking about, “How am I going to solve my next 24-hour problem? And if signing this piece of paper does that, then I’m out of that situation.” Well, you’re in a state of trauma. You’re not thinking through it logically. You’re not able to comprehend all the ways that’s going to impact you. 

So then, we have to, from the social service providers perspective, think about how to build a system to support that person, for example by documenting things in very clear and concise ways so that it can be really easy to understand and help people through a process. 

And just understanding the potential for re-traumatization is important too. When we’re working with providers who do domestic violence work, we don’t have people come down to the homeless shelter. We’re going to go meet them in their safe space, because coming to a homeless shelter would be re-traumatizing. There are a lot of things going on there.

So, trying to be cognizant of what our clients have been through to get to us, what it’s going to take them to get out, and how we can minimize further damage and re-traumatization in that process is key. For a lot of our clients, going through the court system is a very traumatic thing. If you’ve only ever been in as the defendant, it is very scary to then go in as a petitioner and say, “Now I want this relief from this court that just sentenced me.” And so, understanding how that logically needs to work and what preparation a client needs to be able to be okay mentally and physically with doing that is key to success.

Teresa:

Wow. There are just so many layers that you wouldn’t normally think of if you’re not exposed to all of that.

Leslie Ginzel:

Yeah. And there’s some really interesting stuff to think about around faces of poverty. There are clients who come to us who are coming from generational poverty. Their family was homeless. They’ve been in a shelter situation their entire life. And so, for them to think outside of this and what that next step is, is incomprehensible. Versus the people who are just intermittently homeless and have struggled but can get back on their feet, and they know that if they just have these right supports, they know what the other side looks like and they can get back there. There are a lot of different layers and how you approach and engage with different populations. 

Teresa:

How does it feel when you’re able to meaningfully help someone to be successful? Do you have stories that stick with you?

Leslie Ginzel:

Yes. Yes, I do. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. And it’s kind of absurd. I feel guilty sometimes because sometimes the work that we do is so simple and can have such a transformative impact on an individual’s life. 

One of my favorite clients, I have a photo of him on our website, his name is Jeffrey, and he came to us after two years of homelessness. He had been released from the criminal justice system and was unable to get a license because his name that he had lived by his entire life was Jeffery Tate and the name on his birth certificate was Jeffery Rice, because when his mother and father got married, he had just been born, and they had his mother’s maiden name on his birth certificate. (He’s released all the disclosures, so I can share this information). So, he had been homeless because he couldn’t get an ID because it didn’t match his entire life. He had previously had a license. He had had all these other things, like his social security card, in the one name, but his birth certificate didn’t match. And post-9/11, now we have to have everything super consistent.

So, he’d been homeless for two years. He told me he was sleeping between a hedge row in the Holocaust Museum, because it was quiet and it was safe and it was the one place he could find. And he had avoided social services. His thinking was, “I don’t want to take charity from other people who need it more than me.” He finally came to us, and we had to do a declaratory judgment to change his name on his birth certificate. And the judge who did it just didn’t like it at all, but ultimately agreed, “Yeah, this is legally what needs to happen,” and we processed the order. He was able to get his license. Well, here’s the thing, he was off to the races. About six months later, he added me on LinkedIn because he’s now a stevedore working at the port of Houston, making $50 an hour, has a house in Pasadena, and life is good because he was able to get back on his feet.

Once he had ID, he could get his TWIC card to work in the port. He had connections because he had previously worked as a union worker. He was able to just do the things he needed to do, and he was amazed that one piece of paper, one birth certificate, was the difference for two-and-a-half years of productivity in his life and him needing social services that entire time. He told me he had approached several private attorneys about a legal name change, and they all were like, “Yeah sure, 2,500 bucks.” That shouldn’t be the case, especially when the person is coming to you in need.

Teresa:

Well, that brings up another interesting point. You talked about how it costs you on average $170 to help a client, so how are you able to keep your costs so low?

Leslie Ginzel:

So, Clio’s huge in that. That is the truth, and I think after this conference we’re going to add a lot of other efficiencies. But really, for most of the legal barriers that we address, this is not complex law. This is volume. Sealing criminal records, waiving fines and fees, addressing old warrants, things like that. For name changes and all those things, we’ve used document automation to make it so that with our initial intake, we gather everything we need for about 90% of our case work. We can populate the forms, and can just push it through the system as efficiently as possible to keep our active time down, so we can just be doing more.

So, we started using Clio in 2012. In 2012, we closed about 500 cases that year. In 2018, we closed 4,700. We really try to maximize using support staff who can—with the right support and oversight—use all the tools in Clio and really just maximize what we can do for our dollar. Because that’s really the name of the game. We’re only addressing a tiny, little portion of the actual legal services needs, so anything we can do to try to think about it in terms of cost efficiency, we do. The nonprofit sector has a bad track record when it comes to thinking about cost efficiency. But it’s still business. We still need to be using our dollars in the best possible way. There are a lot of great tech innovations that we’ve tried to just keep adopting on a continual basis to keep moving forward. 

Teresa:

Do you think this is possible at more established firms, or for other firms that are, maybe not nonprofits, but just people who want to have an area of their business that’s helping to close the access to justice gap?

Leslie Ginzel:

Absolutely. And we do a ton of work with pro bonos, and pro bono counsel who love its functions and non-disclosures because a lot of it’s just pushing it through the system. You don’t have to have court appearances and all these things. I think for any private firm that does criminal, we’re currently building out some tools to make it more effective, and we are willing to share any kind of template or process that we’ve developed to make record sealings for criminal attorneys easier and more accessible to help bridge that gap. Because, I mean, 60% of criminal representation is for people who are low income, and they need access to these tools on the back end, but there aren’t enough out there. So, we want to find ways that we could leverage that for private attorneys, absolutely.

Teresa:

Why do you think it’s not more widespread? It sounds very straightforward the way you’re describing it.

Leslie Ginzel:

I don’t know. The thing is, we do a lot of training of private attorneys on this subject matter, and there are ones who do it but I feel like everybody’s tried to just stay in their own niche. Where, in other states, other jurisdictions, it’s gotten to be more that it’s part of the criminal representation to do these next-step civil issues. The reality is we’ve been looking at the data in Harris County, and there are easily 10 million records that are eligible to be sealed, and they’re sealing on average 2,000 a year. It’s just not being done. And we’re in a state right now where I feel like we’re at a pivotal point because access to this data is just unruly, and no one’s really doing the work. We’ve created all this eligibility to seal things, but it’s just not happening because the system is too complex for individuals to do it. And for attorneys, it’s not a big profit center. I don’t know what the solution is. We’re going to have to figure that out though.

Teresa:

In an ideal world, what kind of changes would you like to see in the system?

Leslie Ginzel:

So, we’ve been working on a lot of things around just expediting how we do our case work and then trying to look at ways to do more mass work and figure out what those systems are. What’s the technology that’s not being utilized currently in our district clerk systems and our county systems that needs to be, so that we can scale some of this stuff? We’ve been in Texas, we’ve been talking a lot and looking a lot at other systems. Pennsylvania’s had a new model around having a clean slate and doing top-down sealing from the central record holder, and Texas could do something like that. We’re trying to work through and identify all the barriers to doing something like that. 

But I think a lot of it—it’s understanding the impact this is having on the individual and then getting it back to the legislature to understand that the laws we are writing are making this harder for individuals. And there are things that we could do to make these systems easier, to make it easier for people to access the justice system and have some greater impact, because that’s really where it all needs to go.

Teresa:

Absolutely. So, are you involved in anything that would be trying to get this stuff in front of the legislature at all?

Leslie Ginzel:

So, right now, we’re not, and we’re very cautious because we’re a direct client services agency and not a lobbying agency. But we do partner with a lot of different groups, including the ACLU and Texas Appleseed and some other great people out there who usually push that work. We try to get clients to them so that they can put a face to the story of what’s going wrong. We’re part of a larger nonprofit and they’ve not been in the advocacy realm up till now, and I’m hoping in the next year or two we’re going to be able to start doing a lot more of that. Because what we’re doing, the issues that our clients are having on a day-to-day basis on the streets of Houston, are very much directly related to the laws that are written in Austin and in some disconnections going on there. 

Teresa:

What does an ideal world look like where somebody gets the help they need?

Leslie Ginzel:

For so many people it would be not having access to an ID or a license tied to their income threshold. Not having fines and fees from any court system or jurisdiction that restrict your ability to access transportation or employment. 

The biggest thing that we see is criminal records and the ubiquity of criminal record data without access to proper sealing, and so creating a more holistic system where we know we can identify using data that people who are a public risk and people who are not. And 95% of the people who touch the criminal justice system are not a risk to the public. They’re someone who made a mistake, they corrected their course, they paid their debt to society, but you don’t get any relief from that at this point. You still have to walk around with this record for the rest of your life unless you have the resources monetarily or through your network to get it sealed. And we need to have a better system for that because we’re hurting ourselves, we’re hurting our nonprofits, and our government systems that are having this extra drain from people who are unable to access employment and other things because of these records that they should have sealed. So, figuring out those larger systems, that’d be amazing.

Teresa:

Well, and there are areas of the law that are just not as complicated, and we can automate them through algorithms or technology or whatever it may be so that lawyers just can devote their time to more bespoke work.

Leslie Ginzel:

Exactly, because that’s what it needs to be. Use your lawyer brain for what you need to think about. But the vast majority of it, we’re working on an expunction nondisclosure generator tool. It’s been done in a lot of different jurisdictions. In Texas, for nondisclosure, you can either seal through an expunction or a nondisclosure. For a nondisclosure, everything you need to determine if someone is eligible for that sealing, you can pull straight from the data, and then you can use just that data to process that case work through.

We’re working on a tool so that an individual could type in an application intake form and then press enter. It pulls their criminal record, identifies what’s eligible to be sealed, populates forms, then gives them a packet of like, “Here’s step-by-step what you need to do to finish this.” It should be able to be integrated with an E-file system and all those different things, but then makes that easier. It’s one more thing that an attorney can do for any client. It doesn’t hurt to put your name in here and see if there’s anything eligible and just do it. I can’t tell you how many my friends, like attorneys who are like, “Man, I really should get that DWI sealed off my record.” And it’s like, “That’s easy. And yes you should. And here’s the tool to do it for you.” That needs to exist. We’re going to make that exist in Texas. It’ll be good.

Teresa:

That’s awesome. That’s really exciting. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Leslie Ginzel:

Thank you.

Categorized in: Business, Uncategorized

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