In order to break down some of the barriers that impede access to justice, it is imperative to first identify barriers, and then develop possible solutions. There are numerous systemic and socioeconomic barriers faced by marginalized communities. Most recently, I have been working to expand access to justice in rural communities, and many people living in the rural areas that I have served during my summer fellowship happen to be Native American and Alaska Native. I am honored to be working with a team of advocates to ideate solutions to some of the challenges faced by these communities. One of the challenges we have identified is the lack of access to public assistance programs (such as food benefits, heating assistance and healthcare). It seems that many families that qualify for public assistance are not receiving benefits due to untimely delays in processing applications and recertification paperwork; this can have a disparate impact on households in need of some sort of assistance to maintain a sustainable living for themselves and their families.

Why are the delays occurring? Lack of funding can sometimes be an issue for state-funded agencies (the amount of work may sometimes exceed the amount of workers). Nonetheless, the delays in processing public assistance paperwork can be a hardship on low-income households, especially those households with children, elders, and those with disabilities. Many of the rural communities do not have nearby agency offices in their areas. Furthermore, some rural community members do not have access to the internet, cell phone connections, or transportation to travel to the office nearest them. This can create a challenge when attempting to follow-up with agencies in regards to the timely processing of paperwork or conducting scheduled phone interviews. Based on further research, it is clear these untimely delays have become a nationwide issue that disproportionately impact low-income households, especially those living in rural communities and communities of color.

One possible solution to counter the delays is to submit a fair hearing request. This process may seem somewhat simple to a legal advocate. However, due to all of the work rural and tribal offices already have with regard to serving community members, we wanted to simplify the fair hearing request process for them. Along with a supervising attorney’s input, I created a fair hearing request instruction sheet. The instruction sheet lays out timelines (e.g. how long one should wait before submitting a fair hearing request), frequently asked questions (e.g. where to send documents), and even some record-keeping tips (e.g. faxing or emailing paperwork rather than sending via post mail).

Additionally, I have created a simple tracking system. Therefore, representatives and individuals can track the date their application materials were sent in and what course of action was taken thereafter. Throughout my summer fellowship, I will continue to check in with various communities and individuals to see what progress is being made and what additional options are available. In the near future, I can only hope technology will play a role in the timely processing of paperwork that directly correlates with the livelihood of low-income residents and families in need.

 

“Man tends to increase at a greater rate than his means of subsistence.”

-Charles Darwin

I can admit it. I am not the most organized person on the planet. But then again, who is? In the legal field (and in life), there can be a lot piled on your plate…at one time. Sometimes you may wonder how you will accomplish all of your tasks. Well, there is a simple solution that has worked wonders for me this summer- Agile Planning Methodology (also referred to as the Agile Movement). Agile development consists of three simple steps: 1) develop the items in your queue, which can be a list of goals or ideas for implementation of your project 2) develop your release backlog (this will include the projects or steps you will focus on during your first cycle); 3) determine a sprint cycle time (e.g. two weeks into the project you will meet with your team or supervisors to review what you have completed in your release backlog and what still needs to be worked on). This third step also includes iteration, which is pretty much repeating the process (steps 1-3) until your project goals are met. One way you can manage your progress is with a visual board (can be physical) or you can manage your progress by using a virtual board. There are several free web-based project planning boards such as Trello (https://trello.com).

This summer, I have found the third phase provides the opportunity to implement necessary changes. The sprint cycle review process is really a brainstorming session of sorts. This part of the process consists of meeting with your team (or client) to discuss goals, possible barriers, and tactical solutions. As such, the weekly meetings with colleagues and supervisors have been quite insightful. For instance, we have weekly case review to discuss cases (or projects) we may be working on. We give a brief synopsis of a current case (or project) and possible strategies to achieve the client (or project) goals. We then open up the time for other legal staff to weigh in. They may bring up applicable case law, pertinent resources, and other strategies for success. This process is very useful, not only for new attorneys, but also as a general collaborative effort between experienced legal professionals. The meeting need not be three or four hours. A lot can be done during the course of an hour (depending on the size of the group and the amount of matters to be discussed). I have received immense feedback and strategies from my supervising attorneys regarding the recent Adoption CLE-certified webinar I was assigned to create. Aside from logistics and strategic planning, opportunities arise during these meetings. As such, during a recent team meeting with other interns and our supervising attorneys, I was offered an incredible opportunity to assist with a special project that will essentially provide access to vital resources which are needed for Alaskan families, low-income residents, and those with disabilities. This is exactly the type of project I am passionate about; this is why I decided to immerse myself in the legal field in the first place

Agile Movement for Life…Literally
Project management skills are not just limited to law offices or business practices. Agile Methodology can become a way of life. I have been using this process to manage my daily tasks outside of the office. Call me “old school,” but I still use a day planner, (along with Trello). I find that using a day planner, a calendar, and a web-based planner allow me to be more efficient, accountable, and plan accordingly. I even schedule “me time” on my board, because it is imperative to have a work-life balance, especially with so much knowledge about mental health being just as significant as physical health (we will delve deeper into this topic at a later time). It is imperative to take care of ourselves in “real life” in order to be productive in our “work life”. Efficient planning, prioritizing responsibilities, and brainstorming with others in your area of expertise can lead to success. It is time to be productive. It is time to embrace agility. It is time to get with the movement. The winds of change are blowing.

“Agility is the ability to adapt and respond to change…agile organizations view change as an opportunity, not a threat.“ -Jim Highsmith