This article was written by Sydney Rogers-Morrell, Development Coordinator
As Nebraska’s only statewide and free civil legal services provider, with low-income clients located in every county, Legal Aid of Nebraska averages nearly 1,300 requests for legal assistance every month. A majority of these requests go through Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Centralized Intake Unit (CIU) – which consists of a team of eight paralegals and three attorneys. In 2021, over 13,000 individuals reached out for legal support.
Margaret Schaefer, managing attorney of the CIU, manages the day-to-day flow and ensures staff has the knowledge to help those who reach out to Legal Aid.
“The CIU is the hub of Legal Aid. We hear from folks from every corner of the state trying to deal with various legal issues. It’s not uncommon for an individual to have more than one issue. Our goal is to make sure each person who contacts us feels heard. We try to provide the best information and assistance possible. We know calling us for help can often be intimidating.”
Each CIU paralegal focuses on a specific area of law to be as efficient as possible when trying to respond to thousands of requests a year, but Schaefer makes sure CIU staff is cross-trained.
“There is never a downtime in the CIU. The flow is constant. Ensuring staff has the proper training and easily accessible information is incredibly important for our team to be efficient as possible.”
To receive help from Legal Aid, an individual must meet eligibility guidelines. According to Eduardo Renteria, a CIU paralegal, telling someone they don’t qualify for services is one of the hardest parts of his job.
“You have to focus on helping the next person. Every person we can help makes a difference. You just always wish you didn’t have to say no.”
After the applicant is determined to be eligible for assistance, the intake paralegal does a client interview and, with the assistance of the attorney, determines the level of service Legal Aid is able to provide. Many times the paralegal relays advice provided by a CIU attorney to help the client resolve their legal issue themselves.
Meeting eligibility requirements is just one step in the process to receive civil legal assistance, Schaefer also monitors the types of cases the programs and projects are currently accepting.
“Unfortunately, sometimes we just can’t take a certain type of case because our attorneys have full caseloads. Some cases can take more than a year to complete, and take many hours of attorney time.”
“We encourage people to always reach out to us. We will do our best to help them, even if that help is legal advice and direction.”
Jennifer Gaughan, Chief of Legal/Strategy, who oversees the work of the legal program at Legal Aid, notes that eligibility and capacity are often hard to balance.
“We know that so many low-income Nebraskans need our help and with the pandemic, the number keeps rising. As a non-profit law firm, our greatest resource is our staff who provide crucial legal assistance and representation. Without additional funding, there are only so many cases we can take on. We are incredibly grateful for the steadfast donors that allow us to help thousands of Nebraskans every single year. It is an honor for me to be a part of an organization where all our staff works tirelessly to ensure justice is accessible to everyone, despite their income level.”
Legal Aid of Nebraska’s ACCESSLINE is available: Monday/Wednesday 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM CT and Tuesday/Thursday 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM CT by calling 1-877-250-2016.