The DC Bar Foundation is the largest funder of civil legal aid in the District of Columbia, but it has always been important for us to serve the DC civil legal aid community beyond funding. In 2019, when we established the goal to “transform the civil legal aid network, working closely with all stakeholders so District residents have a fair and equal legal experience,” we knew we wanted to foster greater and deeper connections with the community we seek to serve.
Fostering these connections began in 2019 when we first started working closely with NPC Research, a nationally recognized firm with legal aid evaluation experience. Together, we partnered with the Civil Legal Counsel Projects Program (CLCPP), and the Family Law Learning Network (FLLN) to understand more about the client experience. Evaluating the client experience is crucial when determining service delivery options. But most of our grantee organizations did not have the capacity—in time or finances—to evaluate the efficacy of their work. DCBF filled this gap by contracting with NPC Research for client-focused efforts in our eviction defense work (through CLCPP), family law matters (through FLLN), and the design functionality for Coordinated Intake and Referral (CIR)—a new user-centered system that will make it easier for DC residents to find a civil legal aid provider.
Over the last several years, our client feedback efforts have significantly expanded and have served as a source of inspiration and guidance for us here locally and also among legal aid communities beyond the DC metro area—I recently heard from a colleague in Canada about how our reports are influencing their work. By working with our grantees, NPC has helped evaluate services more intentionally and comprehensively. But our work in evaluation and research did not happen overnight. It was built over time, and first, a level of trust had to be established between NPC and our grantees.
Kelly Jarvis, director of research in community health at NPC Research, put it this way: “It takes a while for legal services organizations to trust an external entity with their information, especially client information, but after several years, NPC and the CLCPP and FLLN grantees built a very solid and trusting relationship.”
Most recently, CLCPP grantees and NPC Research surveyed 185 clients who used the Landlord Tenant Legal Assistance Network (LTLAN)—a telephone-based coordinated intake hotline for DC residents with low incomes to connect with an attorney from a CLCPP partner.
Surveying 185 anonymous clients is not easy, and as Jarvis pointed out, “This could not have been possible in 2018 when CLCPP first started.” The six CLCPP organizations had to create a synergy with each other, and from there, they built a dynamic relationship with NPC to do research they could not have done on their own.
The Family Law Learning Network, which was launched in 2019, and NPC Research also cultivated their relationship over time. Gabby Majewski, executive director of DC Affordable Law Firm—one of the FLLN grantees—reflects on the relationship by adding, “NPC Research was intentional about the work that was done. They didn’t just facilitate; they joined us in small breakouts. We got to know them at the same time the grantees got to know each other. It built a level of trust between all the players involved. Moreover, NPC met us where we were. They did not come up with a one-size-fits-all approach, and that helped foster trust and create the atmosphere to collaborate effectively.”
NPC Research produced a client feedback report on virtual court hearings at a key time during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the DC Superior Court began to consider operating procedures and whether to return to in-person hearings, FLLN program directors, with support from NPC, surveyed 189 litigants who participated in remote hearings for a family law matter. The client feedback showed that virtual hearings, overall, were a benefit, especially for individuals from marginalized communities, because they alleviated many challenges.
As I look back over the last few years of our partnership with NPC Research, these are the key accomplishments that stand out:
Increased client feedback and input. Giving clients the opportunity for their voices to be heard allows them to advocate on their behalf and ensure services are user-centered.
Increased collaboration and trust. Working together on an ongoing basis over the course of several years has built trust between the grantee organizations and NPC Research, and it has added another layer of support and collaboration within legal aid.
Increased data helps inform service delivery. The data helps the legal aid community – funders, providers, and the court -- effectively gauge what is and is not working and make decisions informed by the client experience.
Finally, one of the biggest pieces of encouragement I received was from Flora Stevenson, research and community engagement coordinator at Alberta Law Foundation in Canada: “The DC Bar Foundation’s Coordinated Intake and Referral reports provide great guidance about the process of developing a user-centered CIR system and how to engage with the community in a thoughtful way. The recommendations about how to mitigate issues related to equity, access, trust, and efficiency were very helpful and applicable beyond coordinated intake projects. Truly wonderful work that we will continue to reference and share over the years.”
The interest and outreach from jurisdictions from outside the DC metro area is evidence that this research is powerful and impactful. I hope it will continue to influence other jurisdictions in our collective pursuit of achieving access to justice for all.
Kirra L. Jarratt
Chief Executive Officer