Nora Salomon, Esq., Holistic Legal Assistance Network, Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc.
Rhode Island Legal Services (RILS) has provided civil legal assistance to low-income Rhode Islanders for nearly fifty years. Our clients come to us with a variety of legal issues, ranging from housing problems to domestic violence to public benefit terminations. The one thing that the majority of our clients have in common is poverty. The definition of poverty, however, is more complex than a simple lack of monetary funds. As Edgar S. and Jean C. Cahn wrote in the July 1964 issue of the Yale Law Journal, "...poverty in America is not just a lack of material goods, education and jobs; it is also a sense of helplessness, a defeatism, a lack of dignity and self-respect."1
Since its inception, RILS has struggled with how to reduce the overwhelming poverty, both economic and social, faced by some Rhode Island residents. In the last five years, Rhode Island Legal Services (RILS) has implemented a unique project known as the Holistic Legal Assistance Network (HLAN), which we believe is key in addressing that poverty. Most legal aid organizations and law firms today employ some sort of holistic approach, even if that approach is limited to informal inter-departmental brainstorming sessions regarding the fate of a mutual client. RILS' HLAN seeks to take that approach to a new level by screening all prospective clients for possible holistic services. This article will provide a description of the HLAN, how and why it works, and will conclude with a case study.
RILS created its HLAN in 2013 with funding provided by the Kresge Foundation. The overall vision of the program was to address not simply the problem presented by the client, but the underlying legal and social problems that destabilize that client and his or her family. The representation was designed to assist motivated clients who either had more than one legal issue or who had a legal issue and a social issue. These particular individuals were targeted for representation because they were believed to have more barriers to achieving housing, family, employment and financial stability.
RILS' Holistic Legal Assistance Network is just that - a network designed to assist clients through coordinated efforts made by various attorneys and social service advocates. The premise of this work is that a coordinated approach will provide greater results than individual efforts provided piecemeal. The HLAN consists of an internal working team staffed by RILS employees and an external working team consisting of a variety of interdisciplinary partners.
Internal Working Team
The HLAN's internal working team consists of a holistic attorney, a financial stability attorney, and a social worker, all supervised by a managing attorney with knowledge of each area of law practiced within the organization. The holistic attorney's role is to conduct a comprehensive intake with each prospective client, not only to better understand that person's primary legal concern, but to identify ancillary concerns that may be inhibiting that person's ultimate success and stability. The goal of the holistic attorney's interview is to learn who the client is as a whole person - to better understand each individual's unique goals and values so that services are better targeted and more meaningful. The holistic attorney must serve as a liaison to other attorneys and advocates within the organization, and must be able to make (and accept) referrals for legal assistance to other working units.
The role of the financial stability attorney is to ensure that a client has all the tools necessary for financial success both in terms of outstanding debt and in terms of income potential. The majority of clients who seek services at Rhode Island Legal Services are living at or near the poverty level, and have therefore accumulated varying amounts of debt. Part of achieving financial stability is understanding how to prioritize that debt, and filing for bankruptcy if the debt is truly insurmountable. The second part of financial stability involves obtaining a steady income so that outstanding debts might be paid. Many people have been effectively barred from the workforce due to criminal records, professional license revocations, and driver's license suspensions. RILS' financial stability attorney addresses these issues by filing motions to expunge and seal, and by working with the professional licensing boards and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The role of the social worker is to identify social barriers to success, and to help clients obtain services through various community organizations. One of the main goals of the social worker is to encourage Proactivity instead of Reactivity. As mentioned previously, poverty is not just about money. Poverty-stricken people often feel marginalized and disenfranchised. The cycle of repeated evictions, instances of violence, and lack of food and other services can leave an individual feeling hopeless and unable to take the affirmative steps necessary to bring about a change.
External Working Team
Despite the variety of expertise housed within RILS, there are still certain services that cannot be provided in-house. For that reason, RILS has established formal and informal partnerships with a variety of interdisciplinary...