Last year, nearly 5,000 people called Legal Aid seeking legal assistance or information. Over this same period, Legal Aid staff and volunteers completed in-person, initial interviews with over 3,400 applicants who came to our main office, or one of our community or court-based sites. As Intake Coordinator, one of my primary responsibilities is helping people who call Legal Aid determine whether they have a legal issue that falls within our practice areas or are eligible for our services. If so, I invite them in to complete an initial interview. If not, I try to connect them to another resource so they can get the help they need.
The initial interview is an opportunity for us to learn about an applicant’s legal problems, so we can make an informed decision about whether we can offer legal advice, and, in many cases, representation. We understand that dealing with legal issues and seeking legal help can be stressful, confusing, and overwhelming. In order to make the process less daunting, I wanted to take this opportunity to offer five basic tips to keep in mind if you are planning to come in for an initial interview, or are a service provider who often refers individuals to us:
1) Do Not Hesitate to Call Before You Come In. If you are unsure about whether you have a legal problem that falls within our practice areas or are eligible for our services, just give us a call at (202) 628-1161 or visit our website. You don’t have to call, but it may save you the trouble of coming in to the office if we don’t handle the type of legal issue you are facing.
2) Be Prepared to Describe the Type of Case or Legal Question You Have. Once you arrive for an initial interview, one of the first questions we will ask you is, what brought you to Legal Aid? Being able to explain the type of case or legal problem you are facing as best you can helps us figure out what information we need and what questions to ask you.
3) Bring Any Documents You Have With You. If you have any documents or papers related to your case or legal problem, please bring them with you. These may include court papers, letters from your landlord, notices from a government agency, letters about your benefits, receipts for payments you have made, or anything you think is important or you want us to read. The documents help us better understand your situation. If you don’t have any documents, you should still come in for an initial interview.
4) Think About Your Goals. If you have a legal problem, it is helpful to think about what you would like to see happen when the case is over or the problem is resolved. Your goals will be different depending on the type of case or problem. You may be trying to avoid eviction or get your landlord to make repairs. Maybe you want to work out a child custody agreement or change the amount of child support you are paying. Or maybe you are trying to get benefits such as disability benefits, Food Stamps or Medicaid or one of your benefits has been reduced or terminated. Your goals may change over time, but it is helpful to start out with an idea of what you want to accomplish.
5) Understand that We Will Need Some Time to Review Your Intake. It is important to keep in mind that it is unlikely that we will be able to tell you right away if we can represent you or help you with your legal problem. While we may be able to answer some of your questions during the initial interview, we will need some time afterward to review the information and documents you give us before we can let you know if we can further help you.
Our goal is to provide the best service we can to anyone who comes to Legal Aid seeking assistance. Keeping these five tips in mind while preparing to come in for an initial interview, or referring someone to us will help us provide the best service possible to all applicants.