Student Series: Active vs. Passive Intake

Students may be on spring break right now, but our Student Series is still here! There are over forty students working with the Lab on several projects, and so far the Student Series have brought you posts by students on different teams within the Financial Distress Research Project (FDRP). This week we hear from 2L Joe Breen, who has been constructing initial mailings to send to small claims court debt collection defendants to persuade them to answer their lawsuits and inquire about the FDRP study. The outreach directs people to legal help that’s available in the courthouse, offered by legal services providers. Joe discusses below an essential component of legal services organizations; intake and outreach. Not only have we written about these issues and how they relate to triage in our own blog posts, but our Faculty Director wrote an article on the specific issue Joe brings up below; the difference between active and passive structures of intake.

Take it away, Joe!

Active v. Passive Intake

Working with clients in direct legal services has been the most meaningful part of my law school experience, but sometimes I have a feeling that I’m working with clients who are so resourceful that they would have been able to successfully represent themselves. In a world with scarce resources for legal aid, where direct service organizations are frequently making difficult triage decisions about who to serve, it concerns me that we often aren’t sure whether our intake processes are helping us amplify our impact. A large part of what drew me to the Access to Justice Lab was its emphasis on improving legal service provision through evidence-based analysis. My hope is that the Lab can help direct service organizations think critically about how they do intake.

outreachimage3There is a lot that goes into the decision to accept a client, and much could be said about specific eligibility requirements, but even before the client gets to the door, a service organization has often made a decision about whether to be “active” or “passive” in intake. All the organizations I’ve worked with while in law school have had what I would consider passive intake, meaning they open their doors and wait for potential clients to find them. When intake is passive, potential clients must overcome several hurdles before being considered for representation, including having the wherewithal to find and contact the organization and the faith that whatever their problem is can be solved. Therefore, a lot of clients who reach the organization’s door already have the makings of effective advocates. It may be that self-help materials would be just as impactful as full representation for some of these clients, but often we have no way to tell.

An alternative approach to intake would be active pursuit of clients who may not otherwise find the organization themselves. My first project with the Lab was to design an outreach letter that would go to people who had been sued for debt they may, or may not, have actually owed. Potential clients were identified through public court records and the letter was designed to help them realize their rights and encourage them to seek help from a legal services organization. The letter lowered the barrier for potential clients to access services. I hope to see more organizations think creatively about how they can reach out to potential clients who may benefit from representation, but need help taking the first step.

Read more about what we know (and don’t know) about outreach and intake by legal services providers in this paper by our Faculty Director, Jim Greiner.

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