On The Front Line At Legal Aid

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If someone calls Legal Aid during business hours, a human being answers the phone and speaks with them. In a typical month, the Minneapolis office’s intake team fields over 3,500 of those calls. In addition to directing all incoming inquiries, they greet walk-ins and handle over 1,200 intake interviews for new clients every month.

“We serve as the front line,” says Intake Supervisor Luci Russell, who has been on the intake team since 2004. “People who call us generally can’t articulate their legal issue. They call because they have a problem and they hope we can help.”

We serve as the front line. People who call us generally can’t articulate their legal issue. They call because they have a problem and they hope we can help.”

“I just found out my pay was garnished, and I am freaking out.” “I’m going to fight this to the end, but I need some help.” “I have a Domestic Abuse No Contact Order, but my abuser lied and told the landlord he lives with me. The landlord says I have to move out by Saturday.”

The intake interviewer must check the caller’s location, household type, age, disability status, and income to determine eligibility for Legal Aid’s services. Then, they run a conflict check to be sure the legal problem is not in conflict with another Legal Aid case. Finally, they need to draw out enough of the story to assign the case to one of Legal Aid’s nine legal units.

“We listen to the caller’s story and translate their personal crisis into a legal problem,” Russell says. “If a client calls and says their landlord is a terrible person, that’s not a legal problem. If they have black mold and the heat doesn’t work, then we have a case.”

Three members of the intake team are also Spanish translators and interpreters, and one speaks Oromo, Amharic, and Somali. Of the 5,000+ clients handled by Legal Aid’s Minneapolis office each year, most interact with the intake team at some point.

“We’ve had 36 calls transferred to the intake line so far today,” says Russell at 1pm on a Tuesday. “The average wait time today is one minute and 24 seconds. Yesterday we were one person short on intake, so some had to wait as long as five minutes.”

Each call presents a challenge to balance efficiency and empathy. The intake caller needs to listen with compassion and gather enough facts to assign the case to the correct unit and give the attorney the information they need to proceed. But there is usually another call waiting, and it can be hard to wrap up one call and move to the next.

Chris Hampson, a newer team member, has been on the intake team for 10 months. He loves the variety of the job and the opportunity to use his Spanish language skills.

“Every day is different,” he says. “It’s great to connect callers to services, because legal help can be life-changing for them. It’s sometimes emotionally difficult, listening to serious problems all day, but we are supportive of each other and it’s a good environment.”

Because the intake unit’s work is so fast-paced, they rarely learn the legal outcome for the people they interview. But occasionally, they have an opportunity to see an end result.

“I spoke to one Spanish-speaking caller whose apartment was freezing cold and had cockroaches,” Hampson recalls. “She became part of a group of 15 tenants who brought a big case against a landlord. They prevailed, and at the end I got to make the calls in Spanish to inform people that they had won. That was fun, and very satisfying.” Leykn Schmatz

Leykn Schmatz

Mid-Minnesota legal aid provides free civil legal advice and representation to Minnesotans who cannot afford an attorney. Legal aid serves people with low incomes in 20 counties and people with disabilities statewide.

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