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from Law360: Coping With A Pandemic: Cleveland Legal Aid’s Colleen Cotter

Posted May 10, 2020
2:32 pm

Written in Law 360 on 05/10/2020

As society continues to adapt to COVID-19, Law360 is sharing reactions from around the business and legal community.

Today's perspective comes from Colleen M. Cotter, executive director at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

What challenges has the pandemic created in your specific area of work?

The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland staff will tell you they are working as hard as (or harder than) ever to provide high quality legal assistance to those most vulnerable. Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm serving the civil legal needs of people with low income in northeast Ohio. Legal Aid's cases involve securing clients' safety, shelter and economic security.

Throughout the stay-at-home order in Ohio, Legal Aid staff have been working from home. We are accessible to new clients through online and phone intake. We communicate with current clients by text, email, phone and Zoom. We have been working effectively in this new way, and even as the state "opens up" we will continue to do most of our work remotely, to keep clients, staff and the community healthy.

We have also quickly pivoted in response to changing and growing needs. For example, we have seen a significant increase in need around issues involving employment, unemployment and taxes. In response, we created a Worker Information Line and a Virtual Advice Clinic, through which staff and volunteers can provide real-time information and advice on these important topics. These replace the Brief Advice Clinics we were regularly conducting in the community before the pandemic.

We also know that the changes in federal, state and local laws and procedures are confusing. We have increased our community education by creating FAQs on important topics and making them available on a special COVID-19 response page of our website and through social media. We participated with a local television station on a Facebook Live event and a phone bank. Knowledge is power, and we want to empower our client community.

How are you and your family adapting at home?

My husband and I have a 110-pound dog, Joe Strummer (named for the lead singer of The Clash). The pandemic's impact on Strummer is emblematic of the entire household. On the one hand, she is thrilled we get to spend so much time together. She lays next to me all day while I work at my desk. She frequently appears on Zoom meetings. Most days we go for a walk in the middle of the day — an unusual and welcome event. I'm never gone at the office or events late into the evening. We are together in our safe, comfortable home.

But before the pandemic, Strummer went to a dog camp several days each week. She clearly misses the stimulation those days provided. She misses the company of other dogs and other people. She misses the exercise she enjoyed chasing and being chased. Even on walks, she only interacts with other dogs and neighbors from a distance. She also misses her broader family — no more visits by family and no trips to see them.

Strummer can't complain. She knows she has a good life and is so grateful. But she is very much looking forward to that day when she can again spend time with her friends and broader family (human and canine). When she can stop and greet up-close another dog out for a walk or sit on a neighbor's porch. When she can travel. When days are more easily distinguished from each other.

Me too.

What is the most creative or productive response to the crisis you've witnessed so far?

Prior to the pandemic, Legal Aid engaged volunteers to meet clients where they are. We conducted "brief advice clinics" one to two days each week in the community — at the library, community center or social service agency. We provided advice to individuals on a wide variety of topics, engaging lawyers from all sorts of work settings. We met so many needs at once — the needs of clients, of partner organizations, and of attorneys who want to give back.

Because of the pandemic, we of course had to cancel those events. It's hard to even imagine now — asking 50-70 people to gather together. But the need is greater than ever. And so many attorneys have reached out, asking for an opportunity to serve their community in this crisis.

Within two weeks of moving to our new work-at-home environment, we launched a virtual advice clinic and a worker information line. We asked for volunteers, and lawyers responded in force. We leveraged our technology. We got the word out to the client community about the services available. We found a new way to engage volunteers and meet the community's needs. We replaced a service-delivery mechanism that was totally reliant on physical presence with one that is absolutely virtual. And we aren't stopping there. We are learning from this experience to create more ways of service clients and engaging volunteers.

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