Restoring hope through the power of law
Houston’s homeless population needs support, and Beacon Law is using the law—and Clio Manage—to help.
As a nonprofit law firm, Beacon Law focuses on removing barriers for low-income individuals and the homeless—providing targeted legal aid services to restore hope, support restabilization, and prevent future homelessness.
“We need to figure out ways to do it better, to serve demographics that aren’t being served, and answer the needs that they have,” says Leslie Ginzel, an attorney at law and Beacon Law’s program creator.
Erin Russell, a paralegal at Beacon Law, stresses how legal services can restore dignity to the homeless. “The biggest thing is reminding them that they are people, they are part of our society, they belong in our society and let’s get them back to a place where they feel like they deserve that.”
One way that Beacon Law assists underserved demographics is through the power of technology. Legal tech—specifically, Clio Manage’s cloud-based legal practice management software and collaboration tools—helps Beacon Law serve more people in the homeless community.
Since implementing Clio in 2012, Beacon Law has streamlined operations and grown—from four staff members who closed approximately 500 cases a year to 15 staff members who closed 4,700 cases in 2018. This growth affects real change, helping Houston’s vulnerable populations to get the legal assistance and resources they need to restabilize.
Helping to end homelessness
Part of what drives the team at Beacon Law is its place within the larger organization of The Beacon, a Houston organization serving low-income individuals and the homeless community through daily services, counseling and mentoring, access to housing, and—via Beacon Law—civil legal aid.
Establishing the firm
Beacon Law got its start while The Beacon—which began as a project of the Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston—started to take shape.
“The agency was established in 2007, and the legal component was actually a side project that came along a little bit later,” Leslie says.
In the beginning, Beacon Law’s services weren’t sophisticated. As Leslie explains: “A lot of it started out just doing intake in the homeless shelter and seeing who showed up.”
“Over the first few years,” Leslie recalls, “we were first funded by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. And from then until about 2012, it was about trying to figure out what the significant needs were, and what we could do about them—how we could be most effective.”
That time was important for clarifying Beacon Law’s role within the larger legal services system, and within The Beacon organization.
“Once we really got our feet set doing that kind of case work, we could draw a clear line and a clear narrative to explain why those legal barriers were preventing people from restabilizing,” Leslie says.
In 2012—around the time when they first started using Clio—Beacon Law merged more formally with The Beacon.
Fulfilling a mission
“There’s an unbelievable unmet need in civil legal services,” Leslie says. The need is so great, especially in Houston, that many people don’t know that there could be a legal answer to their homelessness problems.
Because of this need, Beacon Law focuses on championing equal justice for the homeless, and working to find solutions for the conditions that marginalize them.
Day to day, these legal services include ID restoration, assistance with benefits (including Social Security, veteran benefits, disability/ADA, and elder law), housing law, and employment and labor law.
Beacon Law is always searching for ways to innovate and scale their operations.
From Leslie’s perspective: “We’re just trying to continue to see where we can streamline, how we can do the work better, how we can expand access, and just keep answering that need.”
“We’re constantly trying to find ways that we can scale—ways that we can modify the way that we do business as legal aid attorneys to be able to reach more people, to be more effective at each point of interaction. We want to create better ways for people to access the justice system—whether it’s with representation, or through assisted pro se processes.”
Using technology to serve
One of the ways that Beacon Law has scaled in order to serve more clients is by integrating technology into their systems.
Early on, the firm didn’t use a case management system—or virtually any legal technology, for that matter. But as their client list grew, so did Beacon Law’s need for a better, more efficient system.
Progressing from paper
According to Erin, the firm’s original case management system was low tech: “a handwritten intake form, a paper file—in file cabinets—and whatever documents happened to be associated with it.”
Over time, Beacon Law switched to a Microsoft Access database, which was an improvement but still left the firm with lots of paperwork to navigate.
Finally, when the firm migrated to Clio Manage, they said goodbye to paper files—saving time and money that could instead be invested into helping the homeless.
“We moved to Clio Manage, and got ScanSnap scanners, and from that point forward, everything was scanned into Clio,” Leslie says.
“There’s no hard copy paper file storage,” Leslie adds. “I know for a fact that another legal aid provider here is probably paying $50,000 a year just in rent space for literal hallways of data—file cabinets that they just have sitting there. It blows my mind. I can’t imagine still spending that kind of money on storage—like, that’s enough to hire a staff person. That’s a paralegal, right there.”
A smart suggestion
Why did Beacon Law choose Clio Manage when it came time to turn to technology?
“It was around 2011 that our primary fund, or the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, said, ‘Hey, you really need to get a little formal,’” Leslie says. “So we decided to start exploring what that looked like.”
They researched different legal practice management software providers, but found that the ones that focused on legal aid were “clunky, big, expensive programs that were hard to maintain.”
The firm needed software that was easy to use, cost-effective, and customizable—so they went with Clio Manage.
“It ended up working out really well. We started using Clio in 2012. Now this is kind of history—we’re just about to hit our 20,000th matter in Clio Manage,” Leslie says.
Feedback that actually makes a difference
It’s common to have wish-list requests for your legal practice software. It’s rare—but amazing—when that feedback actually makes a difference.
According to Erin, Clio listens to her customer feedback and adds updates and features that reflect her requests for new functionalities and feature updates that will make a difference for the practice.
“It’s not just something that we told Clio about, and they forgot about it,” she says. “Clio is like, ‘Hey y’all, we’re actually listening.’”
Additionally, Erin says that Clio’s award-winning, 24/5 Customer Support is another differentiator between Clio and other legal technology providers.
“The customer service is amazing in all forms: email, chat, phone. I never have a problem reaching somebody that can answer my question,” Erin says.
Making an impact with Clio Manage
“Once we started on Clio Manage and started using all the different tools, it made us a lot more efficient,” Leslie says.
With Clio, Beacon Law streamlines processes to save time and effort—which they can then invest back into helping more people on an individual basis, as well as advocate for the homeless community at a larger level.
“The more we can streamline our program, the more we can outreach to other providers who are not in core home services,” Leslie says.
One way that Clio Manage specifically saves Beacon Law time is by eliminating duplicate data entry—which used to be a big hassle for the firm.
Similarly, using Clio Manage significantly improves the scope and effectiveness of Beacon Law’s data reporting.
“We’re constantly adding custom fields into Clio Manage to track pieces of existing data and capture new pieces of data for our grant providers, and so we can be more effective in our programs,” Leslie says.
Here are some of the other ways that Beacon Law uses Clio Manage to fulfill its mission.
The Clio Mobile App
The ability to access case information while on the go saves Beacon Law’s lawyers time and provides them with important information when they need it.
As Leslie says, Clio’s mobile app is invaluable: “When you’re in court (or working remotely) and can pull down your client’s documentation, and have full access to their case file—that’s so useful.”
Clio’s secure client portal, provides a safe way for Beacon Law to share information with clients.
“[The client portal] is amazing,” Erin says. “I love it, and our clients love it. It makes it so it’s easier to get them connected.”
Additionally, Erin explains that the client portal allows Beacon Law’s lawyers to take on pro bono work from anywhere—making it possible for the firm to help more people.
“You are pushing your drafting pleadings, e-filing, pushing things to the system and advocating—and you can do that from anywhere on the globe. So having that connectivity through the client portal and being able to advocate on your own schedule is wonderful.”
For Beacon Law, Clio’s document automation tools make each workday easier, smoother, and more productive.
“Everything that we do, there’s probably about four or five legal cases that we’re doing on a very constant basis,” Leslie says, emphasizing the value of being able to create forms and documents efficiently, effectively, and with minimal editing.
Clio Launcher, which lets lawyers edit documents and sync new versions seamlessly, helps Beacon Law ensure they’re always using the most up-to-date version of documents.
This solved a problem Beacon Law had in the past, where attorneys never knew which version to use because there wasn’t a good way to track revisions that had been made in important documents.
“It was the hardest thing ever to get people to use the versioning,” Erin says. “Now, that’s not an issue anymore.”
Clio’s suite of nearly 200 integrations lets Beacon Law connect essential business tools to Clio Manage, which acts as the central command hub for all of the firm’s software applications.
For example, Beacon Law uses Clio Manage’s integration with Zapier to automate job forms for online applications. Rather than use Zapier and Clio Manage separately, this integration saves attorneys’ time, prevents redundant data entry, and creates a more effective workflow for the firm.
A clear advantage
Reflecting on how Clio Manage has improved Beacon Law’s efficiency, Leslie recalls an interaction with another nonprofit, where she walked another attorney through some of the ways she’s able to streamline her firm’s operations with Clio Manage.
“Well, the managing attorney at this other legal aid saw how we use Clio Manage, and he was shocked,” Leslie says. “He said, ‘You don’t understand—in my program, that takes me two weeks! Everything you just did, it takes two weeks.’”
Reducing homelessness in Houston
For Leslie, Erin, and the Beacon Law team, the work they do for Houston’s homeless community is fueled by their passion for making an impact in their community. Every day, they put their talents to use to affect tangible, positive change for vulnerable populations.
“When I went to paralegal school, I was going to go work for a big oil and gas company and make a whole ton of money so my husband could stay home. That was the plan, and now I’m like, ‘Sorry, no,’ because the work we do means something—and it’s really hard nowadays to find a job that means anything.”
Leslie shares a similar sentiment: “There’s never a dull moment. And I think for anybody who’s interested in variety and humanity, you’re not going to get anything better.”
Using tech to magnify impact
When asked what drives Beacon Law to be as efficient as possible, both Erin and Leslie are clear: the desire to help as many people as possible.
“If we can make our processes more streamlined, then that’s more people that we can help,” Erin says. “So that’s the goal technology-wise.”
Erin also stresses that, in order to be as effective as possible, it’s important to innovate.
“We can’t get stagnant and think that, ‘Okay, what we’re doing now is the way we do it.’ I think we just need to kind of be in a state of always adopting whatever’s the next best way to build access to the justice system.”
Advocating for the future
Leslie envisions a future where Beacon Law can have an even greater positive impact for Houston’s homeless.
“We shouldn’t be doing the same driver’s license restoration work in 10 years, because we should, if we’re an effective legal advocacy group, start working to pull down some of those legal barriers and affect a much larger set of the population,” she says.
“We’re using the power of the data that we’ve collected in Clio Manage to start changing the conversation. One of the things we really want to start focusing on is legislative advocacy, to start rewriting the laws and removing the barriers that are creating the legal issues that cause homelessness in Texas.”
“Being able to harness our own data and use that to tell the story to the right people—that’s what’s going to make a difference.”