legal technology

Focus on client outcomes, says new report on legal aid data

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A new report released Wednesday calls for civil legal aid to rethink how it uses data and tracks impact.

“We realized there had never been a comprehensive analysis of the issues involved in tracking clients’ outcomes, but rather that such information was available only piecemeal,” says David Udell, executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham University School of Law and co-author of the report, “Tracking Outcomes: A Guide for Civil Legal Aid Providers & Funders”.

Relying on interviews with experts in the field, the new report lays out how legal aid organizations can create and leverage existing and new datasets to better understand the needs of clients. The report also suggested ways to improve their work and better explain legal aid’s value to others, like philanthropic funders.

One recommendation is to use “big goals” and client measures to signify outcomes. The report said that legal aid has, historically, tracked the “level of staffing, nature of services performed, number of instances of service provided, and number of people served.” However, the authors argued, that these numbers are not inspiring to those outside of the legal aid bar, and thus can make it hard to communicate the individual and social value of legal aid representation.

“Big goals” may include “clients’ financial security, stabilizing housing, keeping children in school, or staying in a neighborhood that is safer,” according to the report. This client-centered approach lends itself to better storytelling about legal aid’s impact on clients’ lives, which can help others understand the need and value of legal aid, the authors write.

According to the report, these types of outcome measures are being tried in various forms around the country, as others are just beginning to experiment with them.

In another recommendation, the report called for using non-legal aid datasets to compliment ongoing data collection within legal aid organizations. Geospatial data and data from American FactFinder and the U.S. Census Bureau can create a more robust picture of the work being done by legal aid organizations, especially when visualized in a compelling way. Illustrating this point, the report used a map from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University that shows eviction rates in the contiguous 48 states.

“Among the main lessons offered is that when outcomes data is considered it should be in transparent consideration alongside multiple factors that together can promote a virtuous cycle of increasing understanding, improving service, explaining the work to others, and refining the use of measurement,” says Udell.

The report does not dive deep into the bevy of implementation hurdles, like accessing and cleaning data. However, the report emphasizes the importance of data integrity and recommends resources to help with the mechanics of data work, like the Data Analysis Framework tool hosted by the Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project.

The report also warned legal aid organizations not to become blind to factors represented outside of the data they collect. However, even with this word of caution, the report stays focused on its primary goal of emphasizing the need for more actionable data in the legal aid space to improve system and client outcomes.

“We are hopeful that the guide will help legal aid providers and funders to increase their use of outcomes data in turn making a difference for the better in the lives of legal aid clients and communities,” says Amy Widman, deputy director of the National Center for Access to Justice and report co-author.

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