A recent partnership in Minnesota crystalizes the power of collaboration and technology to increase access to justice and provide Americans with the legal advice they so desperately need.

The partnership began thanks to a lucky happenstance. One of the leading attorneys at the Hennepin Bar Association was also a board member at United Way , and learned about the problems their 2-1-1 hotline was encountering with legal referrals. The problems were two-fold: operators often lacked basic legal knowledge (e.g., the difference between criminal and civil), which meant referrals were often redundant and off-target.

Enter Ellie Krug and Call for Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the Justice Gap through two initiatives: the aforementioned 2-1-1 partnership and the innovative Legal Liaison Program. Ellie was kind of enough to speak with me a few weeks ago to discuss Call for Justice, the 2-1-1 partnership, and increasing access to justice through collaboration.

The 2-1-1 Partnership

When the 2-1-1 partnership began, Ellie’s mission was to train lay folks with little legal knowledge so they were able to accurately assess a caller’s situation and direct them to the best available resources. She hypothesized that a small increase in legal knowledge would massively increase 2-1-1’s efficiency and efficacy. Ellie held training sessions for the call operators, bringing in speakers from non-profits and legal services providers. This strategy not only trained the call operators, but also fostered collaboration between United Way and additional legal services providers and non-profits, growing the referral database.

The trainings and networking were an enormous success. Now, operators are able to make at least one primary and one back-up referral. The primary referral is often an in-person service such as court-based lawyer for the day projects, while the secondary referral is a static resource, such as a website.

Our friends at LawHelpMN have served as a key cog in this process. With LawHelpMN, people in need of legal assistance can go online at 3AM and get legal information, resources, and referrals when they are in crisis. After the partnership began, referrals to LawHelpMN increased 800%!*

The Legal Liaison Program

Over the past few years, Call for Justice has continued to grow as a facilitator with the innovative Legal Liaison Program (LLP). The LLP increases collaboration through facilitating communication between normally unconnected groups. Ellie highlighted the Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit that helps single mothers escape poverty, which was adopted by two law firms. The firms provide legal assistance and work with Jeremiah’s life coaches to employ a holistic approach to serving clients. For example, life coaches can explain legalese and help the clients understand how legal developments will affect their lives. Thanks to this collaboration, clients are able to get a variety of services from “one” provider, increasing their ability to escape from poverty. To facilitate such collaboration LLP hosts two-hour meetings, with one hour devoted to a Speed Networking Program. It’s kind of like speed dating, but for networking! Attendees go around the room briefly explaining their programs and exchanging business cards, exposing providers to opportunities and laying the groundwork for future collaboration.

The Expanding Future

Building on this incredible record of success, Ellie hopes to take the 2-1-1 model to a national audience. Just as a small investment made a big difference in Minnesota, so too can it across the country. Ellie says the key is relationship building – or what she refers to as “Nonprofit 101.” She sees relationships as the key to Call for Justice’s success and says that innovators must develop connections with a variety of stakeholders including law firms, court personnel, social services agencies, and the media. In Minnesota the LLP is smoothing this process and helping organizations develop crucial connections to expand their reach. With these relationships in hand, legal services providers, community based organizations, and other non-profits will be able to replicate the amazing, collaborative success of Call to Justice and United 2-1-1 across the country.

*Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the effects of the partnership on LawHelpMN. LawHelpMN received an 800% increase in referrals not overall traffic.