September 24, 2019
“I try to get as much information for our attorneys on every case to try to make their job easier,” Karla Craddock says while discussing her responsibilities as an ATLAS paralegal for Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV). “You have to listen to the callers. You have to have an open mind and an open heart because they usually don’t know exactly what they need, so we have to really figure that out together.”
ATLAS is an acronym that stands for Access to Legal Aid Services, and the ATLAS department—also called our intake department—helps potential clients apply for LAWV services. ATLAS was launched just over 10 years ago in our Charleston office so people applying for help from LAWV would have a consistent and centralized process.
ATLAS was created to relieve local staff of intake work, which can be time-consuming. Directing clients to apply online or by phone allows legal assistants and attorneys to prioritize the work on their active cases for clients.
And intake work is no small feat. In 2018, our ATLAS paralegals answered more than 14,000 calls from potential LAWV clients. The dedicated staff currently includes seven paralegals, an AmeriCorp member, two and a half attorneys, and their supervising attorney. Of the seven paralegals, two are dedicated to specific program referrals, but they also work the regular calls that come into ATLAS. There are also a few other trained staff in the Charleston office that can help on the phones when application requests are especially high.
When potential clients call, the calls are answered in the order they are received, and our ATLAS paralegals are the ones who pick up the phone when it’s time. The general steps the paralegals take during a phone call are:
- Get the name and contact information for the caller
- Find out what the caller needs assistance with (Paralegals also determine if domestic violence is a factor at this time.)
- Do a conflict of interest check
This requires the full names of all involved parties to make sure LAWV doesn't represent both sides in a dispute. Paralegals check the names in our case files.
- Determine eligibility
Due to funding, our clients
have to meet certain eligibility standards, so paralegals collect information about income, the number of people in a household, and other information. They do ask for social security numbers during this process to confirm identity.
- Ask some questions
case needs as much clarification as possible, so the paralegals learn to ask certain questions to get more information. Essentially, they are trying to find out the who, what, where, when, why, and how.
- Decipher protocol and assign the case
Protocol is the LAWV term for who gets assigned what case. It’s based on case type and geographical location.
- Give additional information to the caller
There are some callers who are not eligible or may have a case that our attorneys don’t have the capacity to take. For all of these, ATLAS staff provides guidance or resources, including LAWV’s articles on certain topics or referrals to other groups who may be able to help. ATLAS frequently mails out information on specific topics and other potential advocates to callers.
Some callers who are eligible get assigned to ATLAS attorneys, who provide phone advice to clients but do not represent them in court. This allows LAWV to assist as many people as we can with legal issues, even when we don’t have the capacity to give them full representation.
ATLAS Attorney Kenley Hanna, who has been working at LAWV for 11 years, spends her days calling clients for phone appointments set up by ATLAS paralegals. She asks in-depth questions and gives callers advice on how to represent themselves on civil legal issues that run the gamut from the common to the bizarre. She is joined by one other full-time attorney and a staff attorney who splits her time between ATLAS appointments and cases with full representation.
“I give them advice and try to be as thorough as possible,” says Kenley. “But all of my clients have my contact information. I make sure they know my name and phone number, and I tell them that if their case goes sideways or they have more questions, call me back.”
Sometimes, cases that go to ATLAS attorneys for advice end up needing a staff attorney assignment. It’s up to the attorneys to use their judgment once they get the full details of the case to move it forward on the local level. In one case Kenley worked, she determined a need for a local attorney when she found out the client had already filed suit but was met with heavy opposition from the other side, a business who had hired attorneys. When the client gave them her LAWV attorney’s information the next time they called, their tone changed. Ultimately, she went on to receive what she was due.
Karla works next to the window in a large room affectionately called the ATLAS Motel, a four-cubicle space for ATLAS paralegals and the AmeriCorp member who work the intake line. In fact, all the paralegals share large offices with at least one other person, which can come in handy.
“If you miss a day, you miss a lot in ATLAS,” says Karla. With changes to the assignment system and new community resources happening daily, it takes diligence and teamwork to ensure clients are getting the best service and referral. “Our little department—we’re like family. We work closely together with our cases. Any one of us can go to anyone else, and they’ll help you.”
Kristina Harris, ATLAS paralegal, explains that having the staff together promotes their ability to get questions answered and tackle new problems or ideas together. When someone calls with a unique problem, sometimes LAWV isn’t the final answer, but ATLAS staff make an effort to ensure the caller is headed in the right direction. “The most important aspect of our job is being the initial contact with the person calling, finding a connection to reduce stress and frustration, and listening to the issue,” says Kristina. “After that, being able to provide some type of additional resource so we aren’t just saying ‘no’ to them is also crucial.”
The common thread throughout ATLAS’ team of hard-working staff is their desire to make callers feel heard. ATLAS Paralegal Deborah Lucas says: “I am the first person clients encounter when applying for our services. I can provide a lot of information, not only pertaining to legal aid but other resources. And I can show them compassion and understanding that they need—I have been there and needed it, too.”
Rebekah Carnegie, a paralegal, says that LAWV is a lifeline to many people who need help but don’t think they can find it. “We are the gateway to Legal Aid. We are vital to the work that LAWV does, as we keep the work flowing, helping people who thought no one would.”
Leading the department is Christine Wallace, ATLAS Supervising Attorney. LAWV has supervising attorneys in all 12 of their offices who oversee the legal work done by staff, but ATLAS is unique. Christine not only serves as a supervisor who answers questions and handles difficult situations, but she also takes calls along with the paralegals, takes phone appointments as an ATLAS attorney, and works to ensure the staff has updated information and all systems are working properly.
“ATLAS is the first contact most of our clients have with LAWV. As a result, we want to make sure their experience is a pleasant and professional one,” she says. She also understands the situation many callers are facing. “Legal Aid is a last resort for many of our clients. If they do not get help from us, there is a good chance they will not get assistance from anyone. LAWV does a great job with getting some type of help to everyone that calls in.”
Christine has been supervising ATLAS for six years and has been at LAWV for 10. Her experience being assigned cases by ATLAS then joining the department has helped her understand the responsibility they carry as the first liaison between client and attorney. “It is a tough job, and each one of ATLAS’ paralegals and attorneys give their all day-in and day-out. They all work hard as a team and bring something special to ATLAS.”