Section Review

Statewide Strategic Planning for Delivering Civil Legal Services to the Poor1

Ken MacIver is executive director of Merrimack Valley Legal Services, which has offices in Lowell, Lawrence and Salem. He is a member of the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section Council and a former member of the Access to Justice Section Council.
Massachusetts legal assistance programs last conducted statewide planning in 1996.2 When the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) requested in 2001 that the six programs it funds in Massachusetts begin formal state planning, they made a conscious effort to involve all of the stakeholders in the equal justice community. The network of legal services programs in the state, largely funded by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), thought it made sense to plan for the entire state.3

The delivery of legal services to poor people involves a vast web of stakeholders who are concerned with the welfare of the populations served, in general, and with the provision and accessibility of legal services to these populations in particular. Apart from LSC, which has required state level planning efforts from grantees it funds across the country, the MLAC board and staff had just completed a year-long, strategic planning effort that includes among its priorities an ambitious ($250,000) statewide needs assessment.

Last spring, the network of 21 programs created an advisory group for statewide planning so that future participants would have a better idea of what legal services is, what it does and how the effective delivery of legal services to the poor should be a critical mission for bench and bar alike. Hoping to learn from and improve upon previous planning efforts, the programs retained an organization consultant to assist with the process. The planning group, aided by the consultant, began by surveying all programs to create in a formal, organized fashion descriptions of all programs' activities, case closing statistics of local programs for the year ending June 30, 2001, broken out by five regions (Greater Boston, Northeast, Southeast, Central and West) and case priorities and case acceptance policies of local programs, broken out by regions.

The group also worked on compiling a stakeholder listing in the Massachusetts equal justice community, including relations with some of the most important stakeholders. It is this group, particularly the "partners" and funders of equal justice that will be key to effective state planning.

The group asked every program to involve its staff and board in identifying through local processes the forces, factors and trends affecting legal services clients' legal needs, and received in return extensive information, informative and useful for the equal justice community. This position paper outlines the key forces, factors and trends in the areas of demographics, economics, politics, technology and social change.

At this writing, the group is finishing a statewide analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges facing legal services delivery in Massachusetts. That document will complete the full informational package for the next and most critical step: a pre-strategy conference for statewide planning, which will be held in early 2003.4
The Pre-Strategy Conference will be a "working conference of large numbers of stakeholders who will bring many viewpoints to the table to reach an understanding of the issues involved in delivery through historical analysis and an assessment of current forces, factors and trends before creating solutions." As consultant, U.T. Saunders, who has facilitated the planning group, states, "It is intended to involve those with vested interests on the front-end reducing the need to 'sell' them on the back-end of decision processes."

This conference is designed to be a powerful vehicle for beginning collaborative planning and change, as Saunders outlines in a memo to program directors:

It assumes the problem(s) in question is sufficiently complex that none of the participating individuals or groups on their own would likely develop solutions that would be adequate to the problem or to other stakeholders.

It presupposes that every participant brings perspectives worthy of inclusion, and that participants rather than 'subject-matter experts' can fashion comprehensive solutions.

It brings together people with different and sometimes conflicting perspectives in a constructive examination of matters of shared concern that often reduces the 'distancing' between them.

During the conference, smaller groups will focus on the future through an exercise in "creative visioning." This will bring together the historical analysis with the predicted forces, factors and trends that indicate challenges and opportunities for legal services delivery. The goal will be to fashion a number of visions in these smaller diverse workgroups that begin the path to solutions while acknowledging constraints. The visions developed, though different for each group, will contain common elements, which, it is expected will have implications for service delivery in the next three to five years.

Groups of participants, logically organized by discipline or constituency, will be asked to select a couple of concrete actions and pledge a commitment. The conference participants will establish immediate next steps for follow-up, which will include a roster of members for the statewide planning effort, a summary of conference findings to be distributed to participants and broad outlines for new partnerships. We expect that the conference will result in the creation of a designated state planning body, one that will make a real difference in statewide planning, in coordination of efforts and collaboration among stakeholders.

This is heady stuff, an exciting chance to broaden access to justice for the poor (including the working poor). So you lawyers, law firms, bar associations, service providers, community-based organizations, elected officials, public interest organizations, legal services programs, social justice groups, judges, law schools, government agencies, churches and funders, please join in planning to make Massachusetts the national leader in delivery of legal services to the poor.

End notes

1. This article draws heavily on two memoranda prepared by U.T. Saunders, who has been consultant to the planning efforts described almost since their inception.

2. Given federal funding cutbacks and harsh new restrictions on all funds, the 1996 reorganization of the Massachusetts delivery system sought to ensure that eligible clients, whether they were citizens or immigrants, whether they needed help in court or in an administrative hearing or in the state legislature, or whether they needed a vital phone call or a community education had access to the delivery system. The Equal Justice Coalition grew from this plan. Six years later, it appears that the efforts were successful in meeting the goal. The Massachusetts effort is a national model.

3. LSC provides only about 15 percent of the funding for legal services in Massachusetts.

4. See U.T. Saunders, Pre-Strategy Conference for Statewide Planning (Sept. 24, 2002), on file with author.

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