How Open Door Legal is Using Tech to Make Legal Aid Universally Accessible

By Guest Author | December 8, 2020 | , , | Nonprofit

By: Hannah Wischnia, Engagement Coordinator, Open Door Legal

If you’ve never needed legal help, or never had a problem getting quality legal aid, it’s impossible to understand just how critical it is — and how devastating it is when you don’t have it. 

That’s what makes our work at Open Door Legal so life-changing for the families in the San Francisco Bay Area we’ve helped by making legal aid both affordable and attainable. It’s also what drives our long-term mission of creating and scaling the first-ever national model for universal access to legal services.

Having adequate legal support, regardless of income level, is crucial to protecting rights around basic human needs like housing, public benefits, domestic violence, and immigration. And when you factor in that legal aid is a top indicator of homelessness across the United States, the stakes really couldn’t be much higher.

Man and woman sitting on desk
Adrian Tirtanadi and Virginia Taylor, Open Door Legal’s Co-founders.

So what is our team at Open Door Legal doing to fix this?

In our first seven years as an organization, we’ve represented more than 2,000 families across 35 areas of law, resulting in dramatic reductions of poverty in communities of color across the Bay Area. And yet, perhaps our most impactful work has been in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood — a neglected working-class district in one of the most affluent cities in the country — where our team has represented more than five people on every residential block in the area.

Eighty percent of our clients make less than $15,000 per year, 95% are people of color, and more than 50% are Black. We have documented a 1:21 social return on investment on our work and have developed robust data to show that legal aid can be the most effective way to fight discrimination, build assets, and create earning potential in low-income communities of color. 

As impactful as our work has been in Northern California over our first seven years, the next seven need to be even bigger in order to scale our model and create wholesale change. It’s a big goal, no doubt, and it starts with data.

Here’s how we’re employing technology to provide us with the data needed to scale our operations and, ultimately, ensure that the law belongs to all of us:

Case Management: From day one, we knew that we needed to invest in a case management system that would support our organization.

We started small, utilizing 10 free licenses from Salesforce, and slowly building from there. Our CEO and co-founder, Adrian, taught himself how to program it and built out a customized version that catered to our unique needs.

This probably won’t surprise you, but creating the country’s first model for universal legal aid requires a pretty robust case management system that’s intuitive enough to quickly do complex knowledge and logistics management. Because we cover so many different areas of law, the amount of information we track can be bewildering. 

Salesforce allowed us to build an easily searchable tag-based knowledge system, where users can find templates, advice, mentors, referrals, and more for any area of civil law. The intake process — including doing conflict checks, income verification, scheduling, and interviews — has been streamlined and partially automated. All of the case notes, documents, deadlines, and upcoming tasks are in the cloud, allowing us to work easily with pro bono counsel and across internal teams. 

Managers can easily view upcoming deadlines, monitor client feedback, and see what cases haven’t had active work in the last month. Staff can track time, which the system automatically relates to funding sources for our finance team. Salesforce enabled us to solve these issues, not only by pairing the knowledge with the case, but by providing us a comprehensive tool for quality assurance and client tracking.

Furthermore, we use Salesforce in a unique way to collect automated client feedback via text message, which provides valuable insight into how effective our support is — 75% of clients report a large or extreme impact on their life — and where we can improve to make a deeper impact. For example, the results of our 2019 client feedback survey led us to hire a frontline attorney. The role of this new hire is to answer questions and provide brief services to those with immediate needs, or community members who may not have an actual legal problem but still need some extra support. Salesforce enabled us to easily track this feedback and know what action we could take to directly improve our client experience. 

Man smiling
Storytelling: We put an emphasis on telling the stories of the people we serve,
and Salesforce makes that storytelling possible. 

Looking through physical client files to find impactful stories isn’t efficient, so we built a custom button in our CRM to earmark particularly moving stories that would be effective in our efforts to engage supporters. Each week, I receive a report with an overview of those stories, providing me with a wealth of marketing content right to my inbox.

One of those cases is Keith’s. Born and raised in San Francisco, he serves the city as an electrician. Nothing makes him happier than seeing the city he loves light up at night. 

Unfortunately, the San Francisco Keith grew up in has drastically changed — so many of his friends and family, including his sister, have been pushed out of the city. 

Keith has no option but to stay in order to care for his mom who was diagnosed with MS when he was a child. Last year, Keith’s worst fear came true: he received an eviction notice. Keith worried that he, too, would be pushed out, even though he had done nothing wrong — and had the paperwork to prove it. 

Thankfully, he found his way to us. We took on his case, and got his eviction fully dismissed. Furthermore, we took on Keith’s mom as a client as well, whom we’re helping to get more disability support from social security. 

The real life stories of people whose lives have been changed simply by having access to legal aid is the best tool we have to both make people aware of the pervasiveness of this problem and move them to action to help us fix it. Which brings me to the last point: fundraising.

Fundraising: Legal aid is the epitome of the aphorism, “a rising tide lifts all boats” — it’s undoubtedly one of the best ways to build assets and income in a community.

That’s something that we always knew, but didn’t have the numbers to prove. 

Now that we’re collecting such important data through Salesforce — tracking outcomes in real time, segmenting by client demographic, etc. — we have tangible results to show our funders the proof of the impact their dollars are having. 

Beyond individual donors, being able to show how important legal aid is on a broader scale allows us to make a very compelling case for grant money by reporting on direct outcomes per grant, proving social return on investment, and sharing studies that estimate the impact of legal aid on homelessness. 

For example, Listen for Good gave us a grant that allowed us to do the aforementioned client survey feedback through Salesforce, which provides us with critical insight and analysis into the impact we’re having on our clients.

There are many challenges to overhauling an entrenched system that denies certain people the access to legal services. But having technology in place that can manage the data, resources, and tools for us, while allowing our team to execute on delivering life-altering legal aid to those who need it is game changing.

Learn more about how Open Door Legal is utilizing technology to make legal support accessible to everyone.


About the Author

Hannah Wischnia is the Engagement Coordinator at Open Door Legal

Hannah Wischnia is the Engagement Coordinator at Open Door Legal. Her role is centered on sharing client stories with the community through events, marketing, design, and PR. Hannah is originally from Philadelphia, and has been with Open Door Legal since 2018.